New this week—3/28/10

Justin Bieber—“U Smile”
#27

Musically, this is the most pleasant thing Bieber has done since “One Less Lonely Girl”, but it’s still bland, and also a bit creepy. Bieber’s genuflection to his fan base is about as abject as can be, and the lack of emotional edge in his voice makes him sound more like a willing robot than a real live boy. For now, his tweener fans will remain steadfast, but sooner or later they’re going to want an idol of actual flesh and blood. If Bieber’s lucky, his handlers will eventually provide material that has some. If not, by this time next year we may have forgotten all about him.

T.I.—“I’m Back”
#44

I can understand T.I.’s desire to announce his freedom as loudly as possible, but this is over busy and confused, the bragging lost in a blare of baroque synths and vocal overkill. It’s impressive in its way, but it’s too much, and it gets wearing.

Spose—“I’m Awesome”
#54

Not the next Weird Al by a long shot. The lyrics are grade school level, and the only thing I find funny is the intentionally incompetent scratching—and even that feels forced and obvious.

Usher—“More”
#76

So intent on being on top of the trends that he renders himself unrecognizable, this is where Usher jumps the commercial shark. Combine this with his stint as a mentor on American Idol next week and you have the epitome of an imploding career. Good thing he’s got Justin Bieber as a back-up.

Disney’s Friends for Change (featuring Joe Jonas and Demi Lovato)—“Make a Wave”
#84

Since this sort of “I’m going to save the world by changing myself” rhetoric is Disney’s musical stock and trade, it makes sense that this would be less self-congratulatory and insipid than “We Are the World”. Only slightly, though. I’m also willing to bet that, unlike “We Are the World”, participation was not voluntary. Because nobody’s as self-congratulatory as the mouse.

The-Dream—“Love King”
#92

Though his talent is obvious, I’ve had my doubts about The-Dream’s (self-proclaimed) genius. This goes a long way toward dispelling them. “Love King” is so full of subtle, almost subliminal twists and turns in melody, rhythm, and harmony that every time I listen some new, wonderful touch reveals itself. The neatest trick, both artistically and commercially, comes at the end, when the volume for the last minute of the song drops by nearly half. It doesn’t fade, it just drops. What better way to get radio to play a five minute track than provide DJs with a full minute designed for them to talk over?

Maxwell—“Fistful of Tears”
#96

Maxwell’s material is so subtle that if you’re in the wrong mood, or unless, as on “Pretty Wings”, he hits everything just right, he has a tendency to fade into the background. Here, the line about nearly being driven insane trying to keep his girl from going crazy gets your attention, but the rest drifts a little too far into the ether. Maxwell’s musical and emotional obsessiveness is fascinating, but I’m not sure it’s enough to make him consistently compelling.

George Strait—“Gotta Get to You”
#100

It’s impossible not to admire Strait’s craftsmanship and taste—there’s not a single false step on this record—but as he ages each record seems to be another half-step toward muzak, and this one is a full step. With music this bland his self-assurance takes on a feeling of condescension, as if the success of his seductive moves is a forgone conclusion. Maybe it is, but being so obvious about it suggests that on some level he’s just as crude as any other good ol’ boy.