On the 6
Ricky Martin's status as a former teen heartthrob has also given his image a hint of live-and-learn credibility. At a time when bubblegum boy bands seem to be popping up more frequently than lawsuits against the World Wrestling Federation, forefathers like Martin see a perfect time to come out of hiding and show that they've matured as artists. Former New Kid on the Block Joey McIntyre and Robbie Williams, of the long-forgotten (well, around here anyway) UK group Take That, have both surfaced with solo efforts. Jordan Knight, another New Kid-turned-new man is also slipping into the mix with his solo debut.
In terms of musical maturity, slow-and-steady Knight fares better than eager-beaver Martin. Working alongside producers Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis, Robin Thicke and former New Kid-in-crime Donnie Wahlberg, Knight presents himself as a studly alternative to Martin's perpetual heartbreak mode. His first single, "Give It to You," has him making naughty promises to the ladies amid some Timbaland-inspired beats. "Anyone can make you sweat / But I can keep you wet," he sings. (Take that, you Latino loser!) The album's best track, "A Different Party," is a rowdy jam that makes "La Vida Loca" sound like an acoustic downer from Morrissey. Lifting a guitar sample from Sugarloaf's '70s funk-rock artifact "Green-Eyed Lady," Knight goes ballistic as zonked-out horns and scatting organs accompany him on a righteous, randy romp. The cats at Interscope would have to be out of their freakin' minds not to release it as his next single.
"Change My Ways" and "Don't Run" exhibit new-jack cool. He even does a take on Prince's "I Could Never Take the Place of Your Man." Now, although I have a strict policy on what should be done to performers who even think about redoing a Prince song (basically, they should be knocked upside the goddamned head), Knight and associates slow down the tempo and put a new spin on the tune and make it slightly tolerable.
Speaking of tolerance, Ricky Martin asks, "Do you really want it?" on "The Cup of Life," the soccer anthem that has made him, more or less, the man that he is today. The same question can be asked of his Latin fans about whether or not they would like to see one of their favorite fiery performers get watered down as he enters pop consciousness.
You see, kids, Ricky Martin isn't just a Latin troubadour who has successfully crossed over into the pop-music mainstream, he's a sensation! He's a phenomenon, a Rick Springfield for the new millennium. And therein lies the problem: Most pop sensations suck. I don't mean to playa-hate on Mr. Martin. Anyone who saw him turn out this year's Grammys knows that the boy's got game. But once someone gets sucked into the pop-music strata, that same passion, that fire, that Catherine Zeta-Jones for music, if you will, typically peters out.
That's the big problem with his self-titled, English-speaking debut. This "Latin pop" album is more pop than Latin. Many of the nonbilingual songs on this album could easily appear on a Corey Hart or John Waite album, since Martin and his writing-producing crew must think the best pop music was done during the mid-'80s. Plus, for a dude who once showed such uninhibited promise, he seems shockingly subdued. Misty-eyed numbers such as "She's All I Ever Had" (co-written by another tortured Latin lothario, Jon Secada), "Love You for a Day," and the Diane Warren double-shot of "You Stay with Me" and "I Count the Minutes" have him sounding more than restrained. He sounds pussy-whipped. Martin comes alive on this album when the tempo changes and he gets jiggy with it, like on, of course, "Livin' La Vida Loca" or "Shake Your Bon-Bon." Or even when he goes flamenco with Madonna on "Be Careful." Martin might be a lover, not a fighter, but it would help if he showed some reckless abandon every once in a while. After hearing the stream of thick power ballads, "Livin' La Vida Loca" sounds subversively spry in comparison.
Martin's Latin connection has obviously become a hot media angle, with magazines writing up big-ass articles on Latin pop as if it just happened yesterday. (Has anyone ever heard of a man named Desi Arnaz?) Speaking of big asses, curvy-as-hell actress Jennifer Lopez is riding a similar wave of hype surrounding her debut album, On the 6.
Martin and Lopez have been esthetically linked as musical soul mates, the prince and princess of Latin pop. Just like Martin, Lopez wants to appeal to everyone. And she does. "If You Had My Love" and "It's Not That Serious," both produced by Rodney Jerkins, cross Caribbean rhythms with R&B bounce to make them play practically anywhere. "Open Off My Love" has a fiesta flavor to appease Latin listeners. The Puffy-produced "Feelin' So Good," with guest work from hip-hop largemen Big Pun and Fat Joe, covers the hip-hop crowd. The lite-FM balladry of "Promise Me You'll Try" gets the adult-contemporary folk. And "Let's Go Loud," co-written by Gloria Estefan, with its salsa rhythm, horn work and lyrics ("Let the music make you free / Be what you wanna be"), may become the newest gay disco anthem.
But there is such a thing as overkill. Her ultramajestic "No Me Ames" duet with Marc Antony is too over-the-top. The ready-for-the-clubs "Waiting for Tonight" (and its Spanish rendition, "Una Noche Más") garishly tries to attract the dance-pop crowd. And the unsavory sappiness of "Could This Be Love" has her sounding more like that slain Tejano star she once played in a movie. But Lopez pulls off enough weighty moxie on this album to show she's not a Mariah Carey-in-training.
The spicy spurts of daring that often permeate the music of Lopez and Knight is something the still-young Martin should take into consideration. It's hard for audiences to believe somebody is living la vida loca if it sounds like he's faking it. (Craig D. Lindsey)
This Is the Way It Goes and Goes and Goes
The cynic says alternative rock is at a low ebb. Teen pop is having its heyday, and it's hard not to suspect that the artistic and commercial success Lollapalooza promised is as dormant as the tour itself. Hard not to think that stale crap always wins out. On the other hand, the optimist would note that giving up on alt-rock lets new bands experiment in semi-obscurity. When people aren't expecting majesty (and platinum sales) from every band that draws its influences from the Velvet Underground or Sonic Youth, that's when they get hit with something new, weird and wonderful. It's like trying to parallel park easier when nobody is watching.
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That said, Juno is a band worth keeping in your peripheral vision. A five-piece outfit from Seattle, a city that has produced more great bands than the average European country, Juno has just as much in common with the Midwest's slow rock and the post-new-wave England's art rock as it does the pummeling grind of Seattle's musical legacy. Electric guitars are the foundation of the majority of alternative rock, but using them wisely and innovatively is what separates My Bloody Valentine from the Offspring, and Juno from both. That Juno has three guitarists doesn't go overlooked, but Juno is not about vertical integration of the six-string. It's about staking out as much horizontal territory as possible. The band uses musical barbed wire fences, see-through but sharp enough to cut, to mark its territory rather than bulldozers, which results in open spaces and plenty of room to wander around. Because there aren't many eyes and ears on the band, Juno takes chances, and it pays off.
The band executes its approach with patience and restraint. Rather than going for the quick score, tunes build slowly and explore various directions. So instead of testosterone-fueled guitar workouts, Juno specializes in giving each instrument freedom and distance. "January Arms," constructed on bass chords, modest xylophone and simple, watery guitar lines, drifts lazily before zooming off. Floating on the sound, singer-guitarist Arlie Carstens (now almost fully recuperated from a broken neck and spine suffered in a snow-boarding accident) emotes in a barely-above-a-whisper voice about someone who has worn out her welcome. But Carstens is the first one to crack. Five minutes into the song he raises his voice, and the guitars switch gears to a choppy staccato and feedback-laden intensity, which allows the rhythm section to flex its muscles. It's a powerful moment, and Juno extends it for a full three minutes, what with arpeggioed and carefully blended noisy guitars. Instead of starting with the heaviness, the band members ease into the song, building tension and weight before releasing it with a thud.
Elsewhere Juno pays attention to the little details, curbing any tendency to let things get out of hand, such as on "All Your Friends Are Comedians," which opens with a roar but settles down soon enough. The atmospherics of "Great Salt Lake/Into the Lavender Crevices of Evening the Otters Have Been Pushed" ventures into Yo La Tengo territory, complete with obnoxious title, opening the record with a whimper and the narrator's asking if rock is dead.
"Venus on 9th Street" may have bleeping and clanging guitars, and Carstens does his best Richard Butler (of the Psychedelic Furs), but it never gets sloppy. And "Listening Ear" is slow and melancholy, thanks to the guest vocals of Jen Wood, without going over the top. This Is the Way is a strong debut, without being overly brawny.(David Simutis)