RASCAL FLATTS "Still Feels Good" (Lyric Street) 2 ½ stars
There are solid reasons critics hate Rascal Flatts, arguably the most commercially successful group in music today:
-Many critics are men, and men are prewired to gag at music so willfully sentimental, soulless and sappy.
-Rascal Flatts, by its own admission, record albums primarily to keep the hits happening on country radio. This brazenly calculated, music-by-committee methodology flies in the face of real artists inspired to craft tunes to represent growth, expression and passion.
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"Still Feels Good," the trio's fifth album, has most of the hallmarks of previous releases. The songs are only vaguely country, the better to rope in classic pop and rock fans who feel shut out by hip-hop but who aren't ready to commit to anything too twangy. The harmonies are torn out of the `N Sync playbook, the guitar solos sound amped by comparison, but the rockers, like "Bob Your Head," never really rock. The generic first single, "Take Me There," cowritten by Kenny Chesney, did what it was intended to do: zip to No. 1 on the back of a pop/rock hook Bryan Adams would have deemed a B-side back in his day.
So why is the hook-filled "Still Feels Good" the first Rascal Flatts album this non-fan can actually listen to and, if not love, kind of enjoy? Credit a batch of better songs this time. Instead of wallowing gleefully in sap, the guys only skirt the territory on songs like "It's Not Supposed to Go Like That" (about premature death by guns, booze, dumb decisions) or the love-lost "Help Me Remember," a highlight with a strong melody and one of Gary LeVox's most committed vocals to date.
Also fine, the spry title song and the refreshingly restrained "Winner at a Losing Game," both of which could appeal to "Take It Easy"-era Eagles fans. Plus, `80s rockers can't miss the Pat Benatar "Shadows of the Night" swipe in the melody of the catchy "No Reins."
Pod Picks: "Still Feels Good," "Winner at a Losing Game," "Help Me Remember."
WILL.I.AM "Songs About Girls" (Interscope) 3 stars
It's easy to diss producer/rapper will.i.am (born William Adams). The Black Eyed Pea has spent a large part of his career celebrating the female badonkadonk and his rap songs, though occasionally socially conscious ("Where is the Love"?), stick to the lighter party-hearty school of rap popularized in the `80s.
"Songs About Girls" won't sway naysayers. The single "I Got it from My Mama" is little more than "My Humps II" with lines like "So be a good girl and thank your mama/She made you steamin' like a sauna" and "The Donque Song," featuring Snoop Dogg, is about, well, a--. Other songs lament failed relationships ("Over," which gets its hook from Electric Light Orchestra's "It's Over"), more songs celebrate the female physique ("Get Your Money") and "S.O.S. (Mother Nature)" is a token song about global warming in which will.i.am gets his Al Gore groove on. Presumably, this song fits the album's theme, if one assumes Mother Nature is a girl all grown up.
What makes "Songs About Girls" such a guilty pleasure - and ultimately superior to a Black Eyed Peas album - is that will.i.am dials back on the frantic arrangements and opts for a more stylish production. Singing jostles for elbow room with rapping. Snoop Dogg is the only guest rapper. The CD is just barely a hip-hop/rap album and owes considerably more to the dance floor with house grooves popping all over the place. The lounge-oriented funk jam "Impatient" could have wandered in off a Jamiroquai CD, for instance.
Will.i.am could still stand to prune the 15-track album judiciously; the music runs out of ideas and steam around track nine. But an abundance of creamy melodies, smooth production and plump beats makes spending some time chasing these "Girls" an irresistible pursuit.
Pod Picks: "Over," "Heartbreaker," "Invisible."
ANNIE LENNOX "Songs of Mass Destruction" (Arista) 2 ½ stars
The title is a bit grandiose. For "Songs of Mass Destruction," Annie Lennox's fourth solo album, the Eurythmics singer offers a dark collection of songs influenced by world affairs, the war, AIDS. "Sing," for instance, gathers 23 female vocalists - including Madonna, Fergie, Celine Dion, Shakira and KT Tunstall - in a "We are the World"-styled choral attempt to raise awareness about mother-child HIV transmission in Africa.
But few of these songs have the power to shake things up the way Lennox might desire. Mostly, these are songs of longing, with Lennox bemoaning feeling "Tired of bein' down on luck/Tired of bein' beaten up/Tired of bein' so screwed up" on "Love is Blind." For "Ghosts in My Machine," feelings of guilt are pegged to behavioral traits she'd like to excise. "I think too much/I do too much/I fall too much/I fail too much/I cry too much."
Mostly, she protests too much.
Producer Glen Ballard gives Lennox a mainstream pop palette to play in with the staccato, digitally compressed rhythm of "Ghosts in My Machine," recalling an `80s Elton John single. "Sing" has an infectious chorus, "Love Is Blind" a bit of gospel-kissed muscle, "Womankind" has a contemporary sheen and the pulsing "Coloured Bedspread" could be one of Madonna's confessions from the dance floor. None, however, match the Eurythmics at their most forceful and Lennox's frosty, robotic delivery remains an acquired taste.
Pod Picks: "Ghosts in My Machine," "Sing."