GROWN & SEXY
Just about every Babyface record could be titled "Grown & Sexy." But this latest one bears that moniker to distance itself from the almost four-year-old "Face 2 Face," when Kenneth "Babyface" Edmonds unsuccessfully tried to corral a younger fan base with guest stars such as Snoop Dogg and the Neptunes. All that's left from that fling is the occasional, Curtis Mayfield-like falsetto on a few songs near the end of the new record. More often, we're back to vintage 'Face, aging without apology and sexing a lady up by proclaiming, "Tonight we're making babies," on the very first song.
The template that earned Babyface six BMI Songwriter of the Year awards in the 1990s is again much in evidence. The arrangements are spare and soothing beneath his smooth, talk-song cooing. The title of the song is almost always a phrase that's tethered to the melodic hook and set swaying in a repetitious chorus of mounting intensity. Street-savvy trendsetters are barred from the production room in favor of more mainstream folks such as Gregg Pagani (best known for his recent work with LeAnn Rimes) and Babyface himself, and old pro Daryl Simmons is around to co-write a half-dozen of the 13 tunes.
"Grown & Sexy" is neither as inspired as Babyface's best work (mid-'90s classics "The Day" or "For the Cool in You") nor so hackneyed or desperate that fans will stop looking forward to his next outing. Always a shrewd songwriter, he has coupled the lyrics that most eloquently exemplify his growing wisdom and maturity with the most recognizable and irresistible arrangements, including the on-bended-knee single "Sorry for the Stupid Things." That's preceded by "Drama, Love & 'lationships," which minces few words about persevering through strength when the going gets tough and glorifying that survival. On that topic, Babyface, the lover and the careerist, provides expert testimony.
-- Britt Robson
THE FIRE IN OUR THROATS WILL BECKON THE THAW
Pelican is not a metal band. The Chicago group's press release says so: "Sure, 'instrumental metal' would be an easy and lazy tag to place on this band," it declares, "but wholly inaccurate." That's true, because Pelican is actually a garage band pretending to be something more pretentious.
Pelican's tactic is to take a monolithic melody and repeat it to the break of yawn. Noodly guitars, loosely mutating textures, acoustic passages and glacial dynamic shifts create an atmospheric, skull-crushingly heavy vibe -- or a skull-splittingly monotonous headache, depending on your point of view. It's like watching a watercolor painting bleed together with each stroke.
Beard-whitening dirges trudge on for 10 minutes or more. Perhaps like sharper Japanese post-rock act Mono (they've toured together), the experiment works live and loud. But melodramatic cymbal crashes and plodding bass suggest art-school dropouts locked in a basement, bludgeoning endlessly -- or at least until a wife pulls the plug and tells Pelican to shut its beak.
Comparisons to Isis and Neurosis are fair, except that this album isn't as interesting, includes no vocals (it wouldn't help much), and will put most headbangers in a coma. The quartet finds a satisfyingly metallic riff on "Autumn Into Summer," but it takes nearly five minutes to arrive.
The seven-song album's final tracks, "Aurora Borealis" and "Sirius," are shorter, prettier and kind of uplifting. But without a quality hook, they fade into space.
Believers argue that Pelican's ambient aesthetic frees up room for subtle complexities -- supposedly where the "genius" lies. To the rest of us, Pelican's oceanic drones are mostly for the birds.
-- Michael Deeds
Jason Mraz's ability to rattle off lyrics at a dizzying pace may be his most memorable talent, as he demonstrated on his 2002 debut, "Waiting for My Rocket to Come." His latest album, "Mr. A-Z," leverages the same gimmick with its first single, "Wordplay," a rapid-fire self-satire that would leave his tongue twisted in knots if it weren't so firmly entrenched in his cheek.
Indeed, Mraz's sense of humor carries "Wordplay," saving his solipsism ("I've been all around the world, I've been a new sensation") from swerving into arrogance. He is at his strongest when he wears his personality on his sleeve, from the whimsy of "Geek in the Pink" to the jubilation of "Life Is Wonderful." The bouncy "Did You Get My Message?" is signature Mraz: Contemplating where words go when a message is left on an answering machine, he jumps from flawless tenor melodies to R&B-ish spoken word to even a few lines of scat.
The album's punning title is no exaggeration. Mraz switches styles constantly, even within songs, as in the faux-operatic interlude at the end of the otherwise languid "Mr. Curiosity." Not every genre suits him, and "Mr. A-Z" is held back by clunkers like the blurry "Bella Luna" and the insubstantial soft-rock "Forecast." Aping genres as quickly as he spits out lyrics, Mraz often hits his moving target, but all that jumping around makes "Mr. A-Z" a bumpy, incoherent ride.
-- Catherine P. Lewis
Jason Mraz hasn't lost his rapid-fire sense of humor.