Nickelback, "Dark Horse" (Roadrunner)

Nickelback, the melodic post-grunge band from Canada, has been responsible for some of the heaviest pop hits of this decade ("Rockstar," "How You Remind Me"). More notably, it has almost single-handedly preserved the idea of the arena-rock ballad. This seemingly genteel, hugely commercial band is often maligned. But Nickelback's real crime isn't one of form. Rather it is that lurking beneath the band's undeniably pretty melodies are literal, wildly unimaginative and often insipid lyrics. Unlike, say, Hinder, which flaunts its brute sensibilities, Nickelback is quietly crass.

No more. Nickelback seems eager to shed some of its politeness on "Dark Horse," its sixth album -- by far its loosest and most jagged in years, musically and lyrically. "Something in Your Mouth" is numbingly coarse. "Shakin' Hands," about a poor girl who turns to prostitution, is an attempt at poignancy on the subject of women, although Chad Kroeger isn't interested in much that isn't lurid.

For the first time, Nickelback is produced by Mutt Lange (AC/DC, Shania Twain), who has nudged from the band a tougher sound more suited to its inner louse. "Next Go Round," a soused celebration of sex, veers toward 1980s pop-metal, closing with aggressive guitar riffs. But he couldn't fully jolt the band out of its comfort zone. Sprinkled throughout this album are vintage Nickelback songs, brooding slow burners.

But in what qualifies as a sort of progress, here these songs are the most thoughtful. "Just to Get High" is aimed at a friend who becomes a drug addict. And two of the album's best numbers, "I'd Come for You" and "Never Gonna Be Alone," are about asking for a second chance. Could it be that Nickelback has seen the error of its ways and is apologizing?


Beyoncé, "I Am ... Sasha Fierce" (Columbia)

Beyoncé Knowles has an alter ego named Sasha Fierce. "She's the party girl, she's Bootylicious,'' says the singer in the promotional material for her new double album. "She is, but I'm not. ... I'm finally revealing who I am.''

The contradiction in that comment says much about Beyoncé's artistic predicament. As an artist, she is a role player first -- a brainy, often showy interpreter instead of a gut singer on ballads and a brilliantly varied rhythmic innovator on her club hits. "Sasha Fierce" shows her further refining both of those tendencies, and it's full of interesting choices.

As a vocalist, Beyoncé seems more comfortable in Sasha's stilettos. Her performances on those cuts feel unforced and fun, as if she's thinking on her feet. Stretching for deep meaning on the Beyoncé ballads, she risks sounding ponderous -- communicating thoughtfulness weighs her down. Still, when she finds the right balance, as on the first single, "If I Were a Boy," she can be exquisite -- accessing the timeless quality she's clearly bent on mastering.