Intimate 'Now' Holds Back

* * * MAXWELL "Now" Columbia

Maxwell is a student of the slow-burn school of soul. A spiritual heir to Teddy Pendergrass and Marvin Gaye, he's also adept at blending urban beats with rock's familiar musical signposts. It's worked well: Maxwell has managed to reject contemporary R&B;'s rigid booty-bump formulas and still notch healthy record sales. On his third album, Maxwell never strains beyond a whisper, drawing listeners in with supple funk moves and bedroom imprecations. This is music for hushed intimacies. "Silently" is a seduction in waltz time, with an acoustic guitar and trilling oboes teasing out a languid siren song. "Temporary Nite" layers clipped arena-rock power chords over smoothly flowing funk, while "Lifetime's" descending guitar figure echoes the Isley Brothers' mid-'70s experiences with R&B-rock; hybrids; Maxwell's pleading falsetto hovers over the plush arrangement like a lover's prayer. If anything, he's almost too reserved as a romancer. "Now's" tranquil mood music could have used a little grit to shake things up.

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