Maroon 5, "Hands All Over" (A&M-Octone)
John Legend & the Roots, "Wake Up!" (Good-Columbia)
Even bad sex with another human being is better than good sex with a machine. For its third full-length outing, Maroon 5 turned over its sometimes sexy, usually soulful pop sound to hard rock producer Robert John "Mutt" Lange (Def Leppard, AC/DC). The result is the glossy, carefully tooled set "Hands All Over," the title of which is about the only indication that this music was produced by human hands.
Hiring Lange was an interesting left turn. Would the band crank up the backbeat and rock the power chords? No, Lange's chief result seems to be merely coating Maroon 5's potent albeit lite-R&B with musical polyurethane. Singer Adam Levine once convinced us how hard it was to breathe around a certain woman. Here, he sounds short of breath in a claustrophobic, computer-compressed production that squeezes dry much of the passion that made this band rise above its middle-of-the-road, power-pop roots.
His "Misery" in the opening track sounds real; his occasional rhythmic "unh!" is flaccid. The title track and "Never Gonna Leave This Bed" speak of sexiness, but they don't swing at all with a natural rhythm, nothing like a human body. "Give a Little More" almost cuts loose, but across the bulk of the album you can almost hear the click track: the players are slaves to oppressively programmed machine time. It's rigid, not randy.
For a distinctly human presence in R&B, you can "Wake Up!" to the new collaboration between singer John Legend and the Roots. A disc of 11 soul classics and album cuts from the '60s and '70s, plus one original song, "Wake Up!" isn't the jolt its title implies (indeed, Harold Melvin & the Blue Notes' "Wake Up Everybody," even with Common's mid-song rap, is more of a lullaby), but it rolls with a few targeted grooves and just enough conviction to inspire. The Roots, despite a couple of years with day jobs as Jimmy Fallon's TV show band, fuel and update the songs with real swing, even if they don't exactly transcend the material. Legend might be the weak link; he's not the grittiest singer to be tackling this particular set list -- he's often a boy in a man's studio here, especially when he gamely but lamely yeah's through the 12-minute arc of Bill Withers' wartime lament "I Can't Write Left-Handed" -- but his ease mostly makes a dynamic foil for the Roots' muscle and the frequent guest vocals. The mix is particularly potent on Ernie Hines' "Our Generation," featuring a hot rap from CL Smooth, and the jaunty spirit of Nina Simone's "I Wish I Knew How It Would Feel to Be Free." Alas, Legend's new "Shine" ends the set with a whimper.