Tue, May 21, 2013 - Page 12 News List

CD reviews

By Jon Caramanica and Nate Chinen  /  NY Times News Service

Demi, by Demi Lovato

DEMI, Demi Lovato,Hollywood

Aggrievedness suits Demi Lovato well; always has. In her Disney days, she was — relatively speaking — the hellion of the crew, interested in abraded rock, tough girl postures, and smiles that cracked to reveal sneers.

Her years since teen-idol days have been chaotic: some great music and some not-so-great music, public struggles with bulimia and cutting, and in her latest phase, a role as empowerer-in-chief on the judging panel of The X Factor. Compared to the near-catatonic Britney Spears, Lovato was refreshingly direct, stern when she needed to be, but more often a source of wisdom. She was also a surprisingly good foil for Simon Cowell, whose signature disdain rolls off Lovato like so much rain, and whom Lovato rightly sees as a bloated target, not an unstoppable monster.

She has dealt with far worse: that is clear from her music, which has been credibly tense and wounded almost from the start, a tone that continues unabated, and even enhanced, on Demi, her often impressive fourth album. Produced by the Suspex, the duo of Mitch Allan and Jason Evigan, it smartly abandons the pop-R&B songs of her last album, Unbroken easily her shakiest to date — and recasts Lovato, rightly, in the Kelly Clarkson mold of big-throated singers who have had quite enough, thank you very much.

Unlike Clarkson, though, Lovato’s armor is not primarily vocal (though when she abandons the heavy vocal processing, she sings with firmness and an evident touch of vulnerability). Heart Attack, the single, has Clarkson’s familiar loud-soft pop-rock dynamics, matched with Lovato’s familiar self-doubt: “Never had trouble getting what I want/but when it comes to you I’m never good enough.” And throughout this album, from the chipper Really Don’t Care to the theatrical Warrior, to the bruising Fire Starter, she’s showing off her thick skin.

The production, too, is part of that skin, and it’s generally when it’s stripped down that Lovato confesses to any weaknesses, as on Shouldn’t Come Back, the latest in a suite of songs aimed at her estranged father, and also on the outstanding In Case, strikingly written by Priscilla Renea and Emanuel Kiriakou, which echoes the pomp of her 2011 hit Skyscraper. It places Lovato somewhere unusual: at someone else’s mercy: “Strong enough to leave you, but weak enough to need you.”

Lovato wears that frailty well, but not for long. A few songs later is the album’s other highlight, the breezy and tart Something That We’re Not. It’s a sign of pop’s out-of-whack gender relations that a song like this, in which an empowered woman blows off a guy who wants more, is so rare, and therefore so bracing. “Don’t introduce me to any of your friends,” she commands, “Delete my number, don’t call me again/We had some fun but now it’s gonna end.” No arguments here.

— Jon Caramanica

PRISONER OF CONSCIOUS,Talib Kweli,Javotti Media/Capitol/EMI

Talib Kweli’s new album, Prisoner of Conscious, opens with a scrap of audio verite from his visit to Occupy Wall Street in 2011. “They want to know what the end game is?” he says, adopting the call-and-response convention known as the human microphone. The crowd repeats his line, and he answers it: “This is the end game.”

You couldn’t do much better than that exchange to sum up Talib Kweli, a voice of earnest engagement and oppositional bias since the late 1990s, when he and his fellow Brooklyn rapper Mos Def formed the duo Black Star.

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