BRITNEY SPEARS "Blackout" (Jive) 2.5 stars
I'll spare you any jokes about the title of Britney Spears' new album, out of respect for the pop princess' recent problems with drugs and alcohol.
Everyone seems to be waiting for her latest train wreck. After all the public meltdowns, crotch shots and her appalling performance opening MTV's VMAs show in September, her new album has to be a joke, right?
Not so fast.
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Does "Blackout" contain high-quality songwriting? No. Is it particularly meaningful? Hardly.
But Spears has managed to block out the maelstrom of her personal life to create an album that's almost uniformly energetic, sexy and fun.
"Blackout" has heavy doses of techno beats, and one might expect them to sound dated and out of place. But instead, they sound fresh, as if someone finally thought of adding some digital oomph to contemporary pop and R&B songs.
Things start off weak with Spears declaring, "It's Britney, bitch" to kick off the inane first single, "Gimme More," which has a decent, dark beat that's ruined by her forced, gimmicky vocals. "Piece of Me," Britney's answer to all the tabloid attention ("I'm Ms. Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous/I'm Ms. Oh My God that Britney's Shameless"), is clever, but doesn't flow smoothly.
But from then on, the album gets better, starting with "Radar's" squelching trance synths and the sultry groove of the Janet Jackson-like "Break the Ice." The next three songs are the album's strongest: The Moroder keyboard-powered "Heaven on Earth" has a dreamy `80s feel mixed with Depeche Mode's haunting side; the stomping electro of "Get Naked (I Got a Plan)" is perfect for a steamy club; and "Freakshow's" quavering keyboard riffs under Milkshake-style vocals just might bring all the boys to the yard.
Add the funkadelic future club hit Hot as Ice's singalong chorus - "I'm cold as fire, baby, hot as ice/If you've ever been to heaven this is twice as nice" - and "Blackout" rivals Britney's previous work.
The comeback has officially begun.
Pod Picks: "Get Naked (I Got a Plan)," "Freakshow," "Hot as Ice."
EAGLES "Long Road Out of Eden" (Eagles Recording Co.) 3 stars
It's easy to be put off by the Eagles, in particular, ol' curmudgeon Don Henley, who complains about corporate greed on several new songs on "Long Road Out of Eden," the Eagles' seventh studio album and first in - wow - 28 years.
Henley bemoans how we "worship at the marketplace while common sense is going out of style" on the cranky "Business as Usual," yet the Eagles have partnered with Wal-Mart to sell the set. (The two-CD, 20-track "Long Road" can also be had via eaglesband.com).
It's easy to gripe about that dichotomy, but sincerity was never the Eagles' strongest point. Glorious harmonies and irresistible songwriting has always been the reason for the Eagles' vast reach. For lengthy stretches of the exquisitely produced and tuneful "Long Road," the Eagles' return to the studio is most welcome.
"Long Road Out of Eden" opens with a near a capella snippet, "No More Walks in the Wood," and the four-part harmonies are as immaculate as ever. The Top 25 country single "How Long" is instantly familiar in the "Already Gone" mode. The infectious "Busy Being Fabulous" is prime pop and the seven-minute ballad "Waiting in the Weeds" offers a patented pretty Eagles melody and delivery as if the ensuing decades since 1979's "The Long Run" never happened.
Not everything's as stellar. Timothy B. Schmit's sugary ballads, Glenn Frey's pallid Tropicali closer "It's Your World Now" and the cloying "I Love to Watch a Woman Dance" could easily be scrapped. The ambitiously sprawling title track jeremiad never quite gels into a full-bodied song the way "Hotel California" did. (This is where distinctive guitarist Don Felder, fired in 2001, is especially missed).
But "Long Road's" plentiful pleasures are echoed in Henley's line, "I've been waiting in the weeds - waiting for my time to come around." Given the Eagles' ongoing influence on contemporary country artists, the group's time has never really left. Thankfully, this foursome's gift for making ear-pleasing new music hasn't, either.
Pod Picks: "Waiting in the Weeds," "Busy Being Fabulous," "Somebody."
NEIL YOUNG "Chrome Dreams II" (Reprise) 3 ½ stars
"Chrome Dreams II" serves up a smorgasbord of Neil Young's vintage chameleonic styles, including gentle country twang, sloppy garage-rock and sprawling epics, with a healthy helping of spirituality.
"Beautiful Bluebird" - with Mr. Soul's signature, lazy, front-porch harmonica and love-it-or-hate-it fractured, lulling voice - immediately transports the listener to the "After the Gold Rush" or "Harvest" eras. "Ever After" is another country triumph, with slide guitar enhancing its beautiful simplicity.
Young also brings back his Crazy Horse cohorts on the crashing rockers "Ordinary People" and "No Hidden Path." The former is an 18-minute ode to hard work and honesty with a chorus that will stick in your head. But it doesn't remain engaging for nearly 20 minutes.
"No Hidden Path," powered by Young's crunchy, distortion-soaked guitar riffs, is a more exciting extended jam with a Woodstock vibe. Its line "Show me the way and I'll follow you today" hints at the spirituality that permeates much of the album. The quartet of "Shining Light" (an homage to Roy Orbison?), "The Believer, Spirit Road" (a sonic kin to "Hey, Hey, My, My)" and "The Way" (featuring a children's chorus) might have you believe Young has truly conquered all his demons.
But those thoughts are dashed with the hilarious rocker "Dirty Old Man:" `I'm gonna get fired for drinkin' on the job/Got caught with the boss' wife in the parking lot." A true chameleon, indeed.
Pod Picks: "Beautiful Bluebird," "Shining Light," "No Hidden Path."
CARRIE UNDERWOOD "Carnival Ride" (Arista Nashville) 1 /2 stars
I'd feel bad for Carrie Underwood if she weren't living so well off her post-"American Idol" success. She clearly has credible instincts in choosing material - or her handlers do - as evidenced by a cover of one of the best country songs of the past 30 years, the Randy Travis classic "I Told You So," on her sophomore album.
Given all she has at her disposal, Underwood squanders the goods in spectacular fashion. The mainstream "Carnival Ride," though a stronger, more country-oriented batch of songs than those found on her sextuple-platinum debut, "Some Hearts," is still near unlistenable owing to Underwood's bombastic vocals and the one-size-fits-all production.
Instead of allowing the melody and lyrics to carry her toward the emotions she seeks to convey, Underwood uses volume to stand in for them. In this range her colorless voice turns harsh, suggesting there is no depth to Underwood as an interpreter (not that the cliched material is particularly deep), and it makes her Travis cover a travesty. The overblown arrangements lead to listener fatigue as one sound-alike performance blends into another.
But for the final track, "Wheel of the World," something inspiring and unexpected happens. Underwood finds welcome restraint, and properly sings her most lovely tune to date. There may be hope for her yet.
Pod Pick: "Wheel of the World."
BACKSTREET BOYS "Unbreakable" (Jive) 1 star
Fifteen years after their formation, you can't call them boys anymore - but they're back.
The Backstreet Boys, after a three-year hiatus and minus one member, return with a sixth studio album, "Unbreakable," a predictable collection of choreography-friendly upbeat numbers and achy-breaky ballads targeting tween girls too young to have heard all the lines.
Almost every lyric seems to be taken from The Big Book of Songwriting Cliches, with the whiny "Inconsolable's" "I don't wanna waste another day," "Something That I Already Know's" "I don't wanna wait another minute," and "I can't let go," from both "Helpless When She Smiles" and "Trouble Is."
But it turns out you CAN let go, and you'll want to after hearing "You Can Let Go's" "Baby, baby, let me hold you tight/I'll make it all right."
None of the songs matches the melodies of their monster hits "As Long as You Love Me," "Show Me the Meaning of Being Lonely" and, of course, "I Want It That Way." Every track is a transparently calculated effort to create scream-inducing moments in concert.
BSB's voices are strong and clear, their harmonies tight. But slick production, plastic melodrama and a total lack of surprises make "Unbreakable" an apt title for this boy-band machine.
And it will sell millions, because the little girls still want it that way.
Pod pick: "Unsuspecting Sunday Afternoon."