By Chaz Kangas
By Sound of the City
By Peter Gerstenzang
By Katherine Turman
By Chris Kornelis
By Brian McManus
By Ray Cummings
By Nicholas Pell
Not so swell is the new A*Teens album, Pop 'Til You Drop. A year ago they were my favorite pop group; this year they're gonna have to be spanked and sent to detention hall. Which now means the best import femme-group of recent years would have to be Tik N' Tak, from Finland (where they've scored two #1 albums). But their two American-issued (i.e., sung in English) singles, "Upside Down" and "Don't Turn Back," didn't make any big dent outside of Radio Disneyand the latter not even that, probably because it rocked too hard.
So the English-language version of their debut album, Friends, got shelved over here when its May 2001 release date came up on the tote board. A shame, since most of its sunny upbeat pop/rock is a fairly excellent cross between the Go-Go's and old-school Swedish pop (as in, 1999 or 2000, with terrific Max Martin-worshiping percussion sounds). Jeezthose Scandinavians (writers and producers, over a half-dozen different writing teams) really crank out this stuff like they invented it. Oops. Actually, they sort of did ( = ABBA). "Perfect Girl," "Move On," and "Don't Turn Back" all rock as hard as your favorite Josie Cotton cut. One of the happiest pop/rock mood-elevating sets I've heard in my whole life.
The second Tik N' Tak album, Jotain Muuta(Universal Music import), is more in the "we can play!" rock-band genre (and they probably did this time out, à la the Monkees taking over the ship)good hooks, but they grow on your ears only to a certain point. Unfortunately, I don't know any Finnish so the lyrics sound like Martians talking backward. Oddly, the wonderful non-Swedish vocal accent of lead chirper Petra (who sounds quite Dutch on the debut) is much less distinctive here.
Curiously, the best bubblegum album of the entire '97-Y2K era is another one that got shelved in spring 2001 (for various reasons, some non-musical): yep, Aaron Carter's older and Backstreet Nick's younger sister, Leslie Carter. As rodent-turned-teenager Aaron is proving, those Carter family kids were simply born with great commercial voices. Leslie's is/was pure floating, light, cheerful girlpop that even Lesley Gore would've been proud of, all crushes and wistful hopeful daydreams.
Leslie's June 2000 "I Need to Hear It From You," with its Bo Diddley-goes-Burundi beat, might have been the flat-out best 1998-2000 pop debut single next to Britney's " . . . Baby One More Time"; how and why was it not heard by millions? But her second and final single later that year, "Like Wow!," was 1000% cute, so I can see musically why it didn't break out of the Disney playground-radio ghetto.
The other eight tracks on Like Wow! (DreamWorks promo) all follow suit, with the sturdiest, most adorable hooks this side of Brill Building throwaway cuts on old Crystals' B-sides. Highlights? Everythingit's all of a unified mood and sound, right out of the musical dreams namesake Lesley-G might've been having (at Leslie-C's age 14) before she got to join the sweetsixteen real world drama club with "It's My Party." Leslie Carter'snot Gore'svoice carries this whole unreleased (except for bare-bones review copies) set with the same tweener conviction that was the backbone of early-'60s girl group classics (both white and black, and a little older then 'cause those were different times). Imagine the Chiffons packing up to go to the beach.
Weirdly, the deer-in-the-headlights crossroads weekend of Leslie Carter's stillborn stardom was documented extensively in a February 2001 Esquire feature article about former hardcore-porn director (New Wave Hookers, Devil in Miss Jones) turned rock-video maven (Britney, Mandy, Ice Cube, Counting Crows, LFO, and a dozen others) Gregory Dark. The site to watch Greg work at, bizarrely enough, was Leslie Carter's first video shoot. All heck had broken loose (between the video production company reps, label A&R reps, the singer's handlers, and the video director in charge himself) when Leslie showed up with "issues" (namely, she was real-life chunky à la latter-day Nick Carter, instead of wannabe ChristinaBritney twiglike). After a grueling day of endless takes nearing the eight hours permitted by child labor laws, a cautionary tale of why 14-year-olds maybe shouldn't be aspiring pop stars doing a $350K video shoot unraveled like the cheapest suit you ever bought at JC Penney's: "You wouldn't believe what's going on up there. It's surreal. I mean, Leslie, she doesn't even want to be here. It's all the mother. They keep having Leslie try on outfits, and all Leslie keeps saying is, 'When can we go? I want to go home.' And Goldie [the A&R man]'s up there saying, 'Think urban.' Urban! Leslie Carter's from Orlando. She's not urban!"
And so symbolically ended the 1997-Y2K pop era, with the next star-in-grooming saying in the back room: F* this, I want to go home (which she did, just after the video wrapped). The best-album-of-its-type-ever-made goes for $20-$25 once or twice a month on eBay, so use your judgment before it's a $100 promo-only item 10 years on. A swell cover of Tracy Ullman's hit "They Don't Know" is even included, for the older setso, like the RubyBlue and Tik N' Tak near rarities, Leslie Carter's is a must for hardcore pop fans.