For someone who has sold more than 8 million albums over the last decade, Usher Raymond remains a fairly anonymous presence on the R&B-pop; scene: a singer whose smooth yet undistinguished ballads seemed to have little more artistic purpose than keeping young female hearts fluttering. "Lame" is a word that comes to mind.
On "Confessions" (in stores Tuesday), Usher, 25, tries to make a more lasting impression, and he gets off to a dynamic start in the opening track. With hip-hop guests Lil Jon and Ludacris, "Yeah!" is a raucous tale of dance-floor seduction that sounds like something Michael Jackson might have turned out today if he still had the old "Thriller" magic. It's no wonder it went to No. 1 on Billboard magazine's Hot 100 chart.
"Take Your Hand," an ideal radio follow-up to "Yeah!," is another dynamic track with echoes of prime Michael. Mostly, however, Usher, aided by an army of producers including Jermaine Dupri and Jimmy Jam & Terry Lewis, focuses on ballads that deal with relationships with a frankness that is bolder than the average synthetic pop fare these days. The title track is a stark, somewhat melodramatic account of telling the love of your life that an old fling is three months pregnant with your baby.
Elsewhere, Usher, showing increased maturity as a singer, deals with all sorts of romantic infatuation and regret. There's also a trio of steamy, boudoir-minded songs, including "That's What It's Made For," that will be getting lots of late-night airplay.
At 60 minutes, however, the album runs at least three songs too long, spoiling the tension and spirit with material that is plain gushy and, still, lame.
-- Robert Hilburn
Vines' potential yet to be fulfilled
"Winning Days" (Capitol)
The Vines' 2002 debut album had a few songs with spirit and style, but the real lure of the Australian band rested in singer-guitarist Craig Nicholls, whose music and persona reflected such edgy obsession that you felt he might just be able break ground emotionally in rock.
Not only could the group express youthful desperation so well in the song "Get Free" that Nirvana comparisons were inevitable, but Nicholls also tended to flail around on stage as if in a deep, dark trance.
At a time in rock when so little was passionate and personal, it felt intriguing enough to put the group into the cadre of bands, from the White Stripes to the Hives, that were bringing vitality and heart back to a decayed rock scene.
The problem the second time out for the Vines is that Nicholls doesn't lead us anywhere. You certainly get the sense from "Winning Days" (due in stores Tuesday) that he is a big music fan. His vocal shading reminds you in places of everything from the raspy desperation of Kurt Cobain to the harsh insistence of Liam Gallagher to the moody isolation of Thom Yorke.
But this anonymous tone leaves an emotional void at the center of the album. The guitar textures are frequently invigorating enough when heard on the radio, but Nicholls' lyrics seem mushy and ill-defined. Against today's mainstream rock competition, the Vines are still above average. But Nicholls once offered the hope of so much more.
Exploring a pan-Latino fusion
"La Argentinidad al Palo" (Surco/Universal Latino)
Bersuit VERGARABAT was nothing more than a bizarre Latin rock curio during most of the '90s, a gleefully obscene gang of musical pranksters obsessed with bodily secretions and perversions both sexual and political. All that changed with the 2000 release of their second album, a surprisingly poetic, deeply layered collection that turned them into the No. 1 rock group in their native Argentina.
Fueled by this success, Bersuit built a studio and recorded a double album, of which "La Argentinidad" (due in stores March 30) is the first installment. Each of the 12 tracks e is soaked in a hyperkinetic feeling of creative euphoria. Musically, the band continues to explore an exuberant, pan-Latino fusion that can easily switch from a domestic chacarera beat to a Mexican cumbia nortena.
Bersuit has lost none of its desire to provoke and disgust, as the disco-tinged, profanity-laced opening track indicates. Hidden beneath the mock-Bee Gees harmonies and the grotesqueness of it all, however, lie moments of profound tenderness and compassion, such as the heartbreaking ballad "Al Olor del Hogar" and the electronica-informed ode to loneliness "La Soledad."
-- Ernesto Lechner
Albums are rated on a scale of one star (poor), two stars (fair), three stars (good) and four stars (excellent). The albums are already released unless otherwise noted.