'GRAFFITI' (Jive), Chris Brown
There it is, reasonably well hidden, 3 minutes 38 seconds into "Lucky Me," the 11th of 13 tracks on "Graffiti," the third album by Chris Brown: the moment of contrition. Up through that point he tried out some other strategies for publicly facing his tarnished reputation following his assault of Rihanna, then his girlfriend, in February. There's evasion, masked indignation and, in a couple of places, pleading.
"Lucky Me" initially appears to be the most disingenuous of the songs here, trying to evoke pity for a life lived in the limelight - "I've gotta pose for the cameras/Even when my world's falling down/I still wear a smile." But then, just as the song is shaking off its light sarcasm and its digitized Ladysmith Black Mambazo-esque chorus, for two bars Brown slips into a melody lifted from Michael Jackson's "Man in the Mirror," then drops it just as quickly.
As a performer Jackson has long been the guidepost for Brown, as fluid a dancer as singer. (More so, really.) But this tiny borrowing, from a signature Jackson song about reckoning, resonates louder than almost everything else on "Graffiti," a curiously faceless album that largely thumbs its nose at close reading.
Two songs near the beginning, "So Cold" and "Crawl," come off as thoughtful, even if they're not quite mea culpas. In these moments, Brown is pining, mildly apologetic. And "Famous Girl," a sprightly Ryan Leslie production, seethes credibly, with Brown seemingly tossing accusations and barbs in his ex's direction, though all its internal references to other R&B singers and songs only make Brown appear willfully emotionally distant.
But mostly he's moved back to the angular seduction numbers he's made his specialty.
- Jon Caramanica
'JUST LIKE YOU' (19 Recordings/Jive), Allison Iraheta
Remember Allison Iraheta? From "American Idol" this year? She was the spunky one with the big voice: a strong contender straight into the finals, before the story boiled down to Adam Lambert (the incandescent wild card) and Kris Allen (the earnest heartthrob). She earned her share of admirers before her elimination, though apparently not enough to make "Just Like You," her power-pop debut album, into a breakout hit.
It arrived last week just after releases by Allen and Lambert, and Lambert's controversial turn during the American Music Awards on ABC. Once again it seemed as if Iraheta was making the best out of a lesser spotlight.
It's no wonder that the best songs on "Just Like You" - including the title track and the lead single, "Friday I'll Be Over U," both by the Swedish hit maker Max Martin - deal with some aspect of being underestimated.
What remains to be seen, in light of Iraheta's sturdily self-assured work here, is the standard by which she wants to be judged. "Just Like You" is a workmanlike pop album with shrewdly punky touches, like a ready-made outfit from the mall chain Hot Topic. It flatters Iraheta as a singer but too often suggests other empowered female stars, like Pink ("Holiday") or Brandi Carlile ("Don't Waste the Pretty") or Kelly Clarkson ("You Don't Know Me"). And it's dismaying how soon Katy Perry's shtick has become a strategy. In the video for "Friday I'll Be Over U," Iraheta perches impishly on a giant pair of lips.
- Nate Chinen
'TAPESTRIES FOR SMALL ORCHESTRA' (Firehouse 13), Bill Dixon
The low notes in Bill Dixon's "Tapestries for Small Orchestra" loom like great whales, powering through the best of its long, patient, texture-obsessed performances. They're played by double-bass and contrabass clarinet; above them floats a cloud of brass, directed and defined by Dixon's own trumpet-playing.
Dixon, 83, was on the scene in New York during the 1960s, playing with Archie Shepp and Cecil Taylor and others. For nearly 30 years he taught at Bennington College, maintaining a small influence among jazz vanguardists. Now his ideas are being passed on and extended by his admirers, including the four other trumpet players on this record: Taylor Ho Bynum, Graham Haynes, Stephen Haynes and Rob Mazurek.
His style is built on sound - and silence too - over structure and melody. Dixon has some deep and original thoughts about abstraction in music, and doesn't leave beauty behind. Typically he goes far into the extreme pitch ends of the trumpet, mining them for timbral possibility, playing long liquid patches, sprays of air or sudden squeals and wipes. The sounds around him mass together in loose coordination, then break off into new formations; they're always moving ahead and starting something new, gathering in a thick carpet or popping like fizzy bubbles, growing loud and simple or soft and complicated.
This is a composed work, but it sounds unrepeatable: The players exploit the music's variables of dynamics, tone and duration. A double CD with a smart and nonmystical documentary ("Bill Dixon: Going to the Center") on an extra DVD disc, it's a project born more from admiration than from challenge. (It doesn't have quite the pluck and spontaneity of earlier small-group records like "Vade Mecum" and "November 1981.") The musicians here - five brass, two strings, Michel Cote on superlow reed instruments and Warren Smith on vibraphone and percussion - meet Dixon more than halfway. They perform these plate-tectonic drifts in pairs or larger groups; if alone, they cleave to the governing idea in the music at that moment.
It could sound better. The percussion feels dull and tinny next to the plushness of the layered brass. (The brass gains something extra too, when Dixon, Haynes and Mazurek use digital delay.) But a few of these pieces - especially "Motorcycle '66: Reflections & Ruminations," "Adagio: Slow Mauve Scribblings" and "Allusions I" - have a majesty for which you have to write in your own meaning.
- Ben Ratliff