Beyoncé

4

Never a wallflower or shrinking violet, Beyonc? Knowles sounds more fearless than usual in 4. Her big voice and fierce expression stand center stage in a 12-song collection that’s more rock- and pop-oriented than the dance and rhythm-and-blues hits that made her a star with Destiny’s Child and continued into a superstar solo career.

Atypical of 4, however, the album also features “Run The World (Girls),” a female-empowerment song filled with chanting and call-and-response. Closer in spirit to the famous “Single Ladies” though it is, this early single from 4 didn’t blow up on radio.

Maybe Knowles will have better luck with another empowerment number, “Best Thing I Never Had,” a keyboard-based pop song in which she shouts her non-allegiance to a bad ex-boyfriend. “You don’t deserve my tears! That’s why they are not there.”

Familiar as the sentiment in “Best Thing I Never Had” is in pop, R&B and country, Knowles and her star producers and co-writers - including Terius “The-Dream” Nash, Kenny “Babyface” Edmonds, Kanye West and Andre 3000 - sell her new material with maximum passion. Thankfully, too, she’s not afflicted by Whitney Houston/Mariah Carey disease, aka the habit of elongating one good note into an unnecessary dozen notes.

The soon-to-be 30 Knowles reaches for inspiration with “I Was Here,” a power ballad composed by veteran tunesmith Diane Warren that misses its goal. Amidst the album’s more mature direction, there’s room for lost-in-love songs, including “Party,” a happy shift back to R&B-hip-hop, and the rap-injected “Countdown,” in which the singer beams, “Damn, I think I love that boy!”

Knowles missteps with the overwrought, gospel-style “1+1” and the love rush she experiences in “Rather Die Young” belies the maturity that appears elsewhere in 4. “You’re my James Dean, feel like I’m 17,” she gushes. On balance, though, Knowles and her high-priced collaborators succeed more often than not.

Paul Simon

PAUL SIMON/THERE GOES RHYMIN’ SIMON/PAUL SIMON IN CONCERT: LIVE RHYMIN’/STILL CRAZY AFTER ALL THESE YEARS

Following a brilliant career as half of Simon and Garfunkel, singer-songwriter-guitarist Paul Simon released his self-titled solo debut in 1972. Although the album yielded two respectively reggae- and Latin-infused hits, “Mother and Child Reunion” and “Me And Julio Down By The Schoolyard,” many of its 11 songs are lesser Simon material recorded with sketchy-to-minimal production. “Duncan,” for instance, essentially remakes the superior “The Boxer.”

Simon’s second album, 1973’s There Goes Rhymin’ Simon, restores studio polish, something he may have intentionally avoided following the grandeur of Simon and Garfunkel’s final album, Bridge Over Troubled Water. Yet there’s no lack of soul or groove in Rhymin’ Simon, a great collaborative project in which Simon complements himself with the in-the-pocket Muscle Shoals Rhythm Section, the celestial vocals of the Dixie Hummingbirds, the Onward Brass Band and the arranging talent of Allen Toussaint.

Rhymin’ Simon produced the hits “Kodachrome” and “Loves Me Like A Rock,” and the lovingly idealized “Take Me To The Mardi Gras,” co-starring the Aaron Neville-like voice of Rev. Claude Jeter and easily among Simon’s most beautiful songs.

Live Rhymin’ captures Simon in his early, Garfunkel-less performance years. A mix of solo and Simon and Garfunkel hits featuring the Jessy Dixon Singers and Peruvian band Urubamba, the performances show Simon still finding his way on stage.

Ironically, the most rewarding moments of his 1974 studio album, Still Crazy After All These Years, come in a one-track reunion with Garfunkel for “My Little Town.” There are other highlights but the “Bridge Over Troubled Water” retread, “Silent Eyes,” for example, and other underachieving songs help make Crazy a weaker Simon opus.