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The Playlist: What’s in the earbuds this week

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Updated: July 18, 2012 6:18AM

Justin Bieber, “Believe” (Island) ★★½

The marketing mantra, now that our lil’ Beebs has turned 18, is that “Believe,” the sophomore album from teen idol Justin Bieber, showcases his manhood. That is: “We’re clearly seeing a more mature record this time around,” Mike Posner, producer of the album’s first single, “Boyfriend,” told Billboard magazine last week. Grown up, not pin-up, yesiree.

He spells “M” … “A,” child …

Mannish boy, indeed. On “Believe” — his second proper album, after the debut’s acoustic reboot, the remixes, the movie and the Christmas album — Bieber wants to “see you work it, girl” and, girl, he can “feel your body rock,” but his romantic metaphors are still toy stories (“I could be your Buzz Lightyear”). He has precious teen-boy notions of what constitutes a romantic evening, which are made exponentially hilarious by the way he raps them (“chillin’ by the fire while we eatin’ fondue”). “They say we’re too young for love,” he moans, but he has no intentions of backing off. In “Beauty and a Beat,” he and Nicki Minaj are “gonna party like it’s 3012 tonight” (so, what, you had to trump Prince by a whole millennium?), which includes some dissing of Bieber’s girlfriends; over the thumping dance-floor beats, Minaj rhymes the word “weiner” with her sly aside: “Gotta keep an eye out for Selener” (i.e., Bieber’s main squeeze, fellow young singer Selena Gomez).

The hormones roil but never quite boil in this set of safe but spot-on dance-pop. Though the 13 songs are crafted by 18 separate producers (and I won’t even attempt a count of the dozens of writers), the album’s flow is mostly steady. What has definitely matured is Bieber’s voice. When he’s not feeling the peer pressure of the album’s other guest rappers (Drake, Big Sean, Ludacris) to go all mushy-mouthed, his breathy yearning actually toes a line or two drawn by his idol, Michael Jackson. The “ohs” and “ahs” over the techno whomps of “All Around the World,” the falsetto la-las from “As Long as You Love Me” — it’s Bieber fishing for an affectation like Jacko’s trademark hee-hee; it’s certainly not dangerous, but neither is it bad. More important, Bieber nails his ballads. The middle of the album showcases his voice best — the breezy reverie and Christmasy sing-song of “Catching Feelings,” the big swaying Hanson-esque harmonies of “Fall” and the Jackson-sampling “Die in Your Arms.” The material is pretty vacuous, but the expected simplicity and sweetness has just a tad more tang.

Man or mouse, he still drives the girls wild. Last week, on a promo tour for the album, he performed for 300,000 in Mexico City. The week before that, tickets for his four-month world tour later this year went on sale and sold out — all of them, every ticket, every show — in an hour. (He’s here Oct. 23-24 at the Allstate Arena.) Take that, One Direction.

Fiona Apple, “The Idler Wheel Is Wiser Than the Driver of the Screw, and Whipping Cords Will Serve You More Than Ropes Will Ever Do” (Epic) ★★★½

Whipping cords, maybe, but piano wire works just as well in the service of self-flagellation. Fiona Apple has made it an art — her elliptical lyrics and oblique music fashioning both silken and steely threads with which, like a monk, she mortifies her flesh for our enlightenment. “That’s where the pain comes in,” she sings through tight lips, trembling, over a toy piano in the delicate, Tim Burton-worthy opener, “Every Single Night.” She’s completely on edge, struggling to keep it together, could snap at any moment. The nerves aren’t wrenching her gut, they’re the “white-flamed butterflies in my brain,” and she warns, “Every single night/Is a fight with my brain.” Tonight, it’s clear, she may lose the battle.

Whew, and that’s just track one.

Returning to action after seven years, Apple, 34, is as emotionally taut as ever on “The Idler Wheel,” possibly her most arresting record to date. These 10 uneasy-listening gems condense the dark, lurching cabarets of Kurt Weill and Tom Waits into claustrophobic headspaces. Each slice of manic panic is made all the more powerful by its quivering restraint, heard in the lyrics, of course, but also in this album’s sparse arrangements. Her piano, with which she has as tortured a relationship as her apparent lovers, is a weapon used for melody and percussion. Working mostly alone with Charlie Drayton and his few other instruments (but often unusual ones, like marimba and celeste, loops and, er, pillows), Apple makes sure each line, each note, packs some psychological punch. It’s exhausting, yet it’s not easy to turn away.

While the compositions are often playful (and “Daredevil” is deceptively so), Apple’s white-knuckled words are not. “I don’t want to talk about anything,” she lies to “Jonathan.” “I root for you, I love you,” she tells her “Valentine,” but also, “While you were watching someone else/I stared at you and cut myself.”

Back away slowly, but stay within earshot. Even she admits some distance is good: “We could still support each other/All we gotta do’s avoid each other” (“Werewolf”). (It’s such a jagged little pill that British music mag NME accidentally ran a photo of Alanis Morissette with its “Idler” review.) Her clear confidence sells every crisis — in concert as well as on record. Real and rollicking, Apple may be poisoned but she’s more compelling than ever.

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