Bruno Mars, "Unorthodox Jukebox" (Atlantic)
His debut "Doo-Wops & Hooligans" showed he would catch a grenade for ya, jump in front of a train for ya and, eventually, marry ya. But all that genre-jumping smoothness does make you wonder where Mars' musical heart really lies. This album won't answer that question.
In the space of 10 songs, he hops from pop to doo-wop to reggae to funk and back again -- creating a jukebox of styles in his own image. He plays the part of a lovelorn Sting in a sweaty rock ode to the Police, "Locked Out of Heaven." He savvily channels Michael Jackson in the rock-R&B hybrid "Moonshine." And he captures a No Doubt-ish reggae lilt on "Show Me."
Mars' profile reached a new level recently when he hosted "Saturday Night Live" and showed off his impressive ability to impersonate a wide range of artists. In a way, he does that here, as well, rather than actually baring his own emotions and desired musical direction. The best moments come when Mars lets his guard down. The gorgeous guitar-driven R&B of "If I Knew" is a wonderful old-school surprise, while the shimmering '80s funk of "Treasure" is pure fun. However, it's the touching piano ballad "When I Was Your Man" that shows how effective Mars can be when he lets himself be a little vulnerable. Perfect-sounding pop is never as interesting as some true, messy emotion.
GLENN GAMBOA, NEWSDAY
Lifehouse, "Almeria" (Geffen)
Unblinking reassurance in the face of a nominal struggle: That's the gist of most songs by Lifehouse, an inoffensively sure-footed alternative-rock band from Los Angeles. The cover of its sixth studio album depicts the stare-down preceding a gun duel -- a coolly stylized nod to the spaghetti westerns for which Almeria, the Andalusian port city, is justly known. The suggestion is that the stakes are somehow higher, and the payoff more grimly satisfying, than before.
But "Almeria" has little grit or tension. What the album does deliver is a gentle retooling of the Lifehouse sound, a few notches further from its post-grunge roots and a few clicks closer to the earnest, soaring fare finding traction on modern-rock radio. Jason Wade, Lifehouse's lead singer, has always been a sturdy purveyor of melody, though rarely a distinctive one. One indication of his current mind-set can be found in the lead single, "Between the Raindrops," which features a guest vocal by Natasha Bedingfield: It's imperturbably peppy, despite its suggestion of cloud cover.
The rest of the band locks down on a solid but fairly anonymous competence throughout the album. When Peter Frampton shows up with his Les Paul guitar on "Right Back Home," his easy heat and plangency mark him as an alien life form. But Lifehouse doesn't need to loosen up to get its message across. Wade, who for all his talk of duress never seems to be caught off-guard, sells it well on "Where I Come From," a twinkling pledge of devotion: "Wherever you are/ Is where I come from."
NATE CHINEN, NEW YORK TIMES