By Steve Weinstein
By Bryan Bierman
By Lindsey Rhoades
By Chaz Kangas
By Ben Westhoff and Sarah Purkrabek
By Jena Ardell
By Jesse Sendejas Jr.
By Katherine Turman
After New Kids on the Block cut strings from their puppeteer, they got assertively more urban than anything crafted for them by Starr, the fellow who wrote New Edition's "Candy Girl." Face the Music was spotty stuff for 1994, but a fitting epitaph to NKOTB-mania. For those boys from Boston to contemplate their would-be wives and wail through a lascivious ditty called "Dirty Dawg" seemed calculated less to shock tender teenage hearts than to slam their scrapbooks shut forever.
Today, breaking bad contracts has become the Radio Disney-act version of metal groups changing singers. Of course, it's doubtful any of the million-plus bobby-soxers who bought No Strings Attached upon its March 23 release would notice the absence of 'N Sync's debut's "executive director," Louis J. Pearlman, from the small print. But, unlike last time around, there isn't a Bread or Christopher Cross cover to be found. Just a time warp being pointed straight at 1988.
By commissioning Teddy Riley to twirl knobs for a romp through "Just Got Paid," penned for Johnny Kemp a dozen years ago, these five alabaster lads slyly stomp on Pearlman's prodigious posterior with the insurgent rallying cry: We're never going back, because we're going black. Yet Riley, detailed by NKOTB with a similar order six years ago, determinedly waters down Kemp's check-cashing store endorsement.
Whereas one-hit wonder Johnny seemed to revel in the ready nihilism of Teddy's bacchanalia, blurting out halfway through his song how tired he was of all those boring parties, 'N Sync strive to sound bored instead. Perhaps they'd much rather be at home Friday night snickering at their ex-handlers putting heartthrob hopefuls O-Town through their paces on ABC-TV's Making the Band. (Riley's return to whitebread could've been better exemplified by reviving "Don't Take My Mind on a Trip," another track he did in 1988, for Boy Georgewho also needed such rehabilitation after his ill-advised remake of Bread's "Everything I Own.")
It's not just Teddy Riley making over this band, though: Richard Marx rewrites his prom-ish, also-'88 "Hold On to the Nights" as "This I Promise You." Between these two pre-George H.W. Bush-era throwbacks, it's easy to assume "This Makes Me Ill" comes with a positive connotation; rather, it's the sound of a wad of bills waving at the folks who wrote "No Scrubs." With Left Eye phoning in her cameo for "Space Cowboy" (with lyrics so apocalyptic you'll be scouring the credits for Wyclef), 'N Sync's urban IPO gets a two-for-one split, after No Strings Attached pays dividends on the Stockholm tip.
The promise of pelvic thrusts far outweighs the vindictiveness of "Bye Bye Bye"I'm just waiting for the axman of choice for Max Martin et al., Esbjörn Öhrwall, to finally earn his umlauts by ripping into a solo on the next Britney Spears disc, since he's inaudible here. "It's Gotta Be Me" finds Britney's look-alike playmate Justin human beatboxing across a Spears-esque salute to future stalkers of America.
And while the quintet's membership ranges from pushing-30 Tommy Lee doppelgänger Chris Kirkpatrick to fussy 19-year-old French toast eater Timberlake, it's JC Chasez's compositions that emerge on 'N Sync's second disc as the most intriguing of the pack. No Strings's title track is a seance for perished tycoon of teen Denniz PoP (he finessed 'N Sync's first hit, "I Want You Back" in 1998) without the grating Eurocentric inflections. "Bringin' da Noise," despite further hearkening to outmoded street appeal, is the sort of rouser that yearns for an 'N Sync live album. (Blame those crowd sound effects.) And presumably, Chasez is channeling Basement Jaxx on "Digital Get Down," where 'N Sync's stiff little fingers get a workout on a number about computer love. Like any connotation of the word "digital," it finds its future is in the past, with a pop-locking spell that shimmers right up until the disc's drecky Diane Warren denouement.
So, is this the same 'N Sync that made lumbering sap last year with Alabama and Gloria Estefan, or cocky kids convinced they can make subdivision r&b better than Lou Pearlman's production pensioners, Full Force? I'll swear on my well-worn copy of Color Me Badd's second album that No Strings Attached's penultimate track, "I'll Be Good for You," is the most endearing slice of buttery urbanism ever generated by guys with names like Joey Fatone and Lance Bass. Its bottom end comes courtesy of "Believe in Love" by Teddy Pendergrass. But the 'N Sync-er behind this song is, in fact, young Timberlake, who evokes Little Anthony and Hi-Five, responding to a climate where the blackest boy band might well be five white guys from Orlando. Hey, JustinJodeci just called. They want a little sumthin' sumthin' back.