Tween-Pop Suppressed!

Five-Girl Armies and Finnish Martians Fall Through the Cracks

Wow, it must have been back around the third straight August week of hearing the year's best pop/rock single ("That's What Girls Do" by debut act No Secrets) climb up the Sunday- night Top 20 underground countdown (for kids, tweens, babysitters, and uncles only, dig) that I started to drift into some nice rocking fuzz-guitar 1969 time-line daydreams: "Da dadada da da! Da dadada da da! Da dadada dadada da!" Which can only mean "Race With the Devil," Jack ( = Adrian Gurvitz and his one-hit U.K. band Gun). Ten seconds after that I'm flashing back to "Butter Queen," from 1971, by Three-Man Army ( = Adrian Gurvitz) (I'll save ya the lookup: Third of a Lifetime, #244 of 500 metal albums in Stairway to Hell).

Ha ha, stop the reflection and get to the connection, I can hear you saying. Well, OK . . . It turns out that back in spring 2000, Carly Lewis of Los Angeles, then age 14, had a vision one morning, not unlike hundreds of girls around the country (black or white, per Beyoncé's or Britney's telepathic commands: "You want to . . . be . . . like . . . me"). So Carly told Dad that she really really really wanted to have a singing group. Dad was Adrian Gurvitz.

Appropriate trade ads were placed, two girls were recruited (Angel Faith, age 12, and Erin Tanner, age 14), each of whom brought in a fellow singer-dancer (Jessica Fried, age 13, and Jade Ryusaki, age 12) by Y2K's close. Who needs Orlando when you can make the band right in Dad's own practice studio? (It seems that years after Three-Man Army joined Bang and Sir Lord Baltimore in the early-'70s metal scrap heap, Dad Gurvitz did production work for the likes of Mya, Mariah Carey, Christina Aguilera, and yup, Eddie Money.)

Unlike, say, the stillborn debut album by white O-girls PYT, who cut one fabulous pop single ("Something More Beautiful") in 1999, then disappeared into a sea of grooveless wannabe r&b-itis, No Secrets(Jive) is a keeper—quite agile, and produced and written by an endless army of collaborators and co-collaborators. So it's hard to say where thumbs-up credit should be assigned for the 90% solid songs (mostly all on the next level down from the great debut single written by Nina Ossoff and Richie Supa—yep, the Aerosmith "Chip Away the Stone" R-Supa!).

The songs skip nimbly between group-vocal-chorus poppy and tweener-hip-hop, thanks largely to the poppy/funky crosstalk of the beats (many mini-distillations of a slightly updated Max Martin sound on the rhythm tracks, an impressive feat. . . . Just ask Bon Jovi if Max's work on "It's My Life" was a career juicer). I'll take a neutral stance on No Secrets' "Kids in America" from the big-screen hit Jimmy Neutronsoundtrack—it's somewhere between the third- and 53rd-best cover of that venerable rock classic ever. (Though speaking of kiddie toons, "Oh Aaron" by the A-Man back in the ancient days of 2001 featured No Secrets as backup yodelers.)

Hey, just noticed there's a very interesting distaff party line on this album on Amazon.com, via former Creem staffer-domo Jaan Uhelszki, no less: "These five supremely confident young women have none of the coyness or the unrelenting earnestness usually found in teen pop. Instead, they have a genius for dynamics and off-beat rhythms, and a wicked sense of humor that elevates their songs of love and female empowerment into playful, provocative gems." (Male-sex translation: Producers laid down good beats, while hired songwriters delivered "I'm stronger now" lyrics as requested.)

Thing is, the No Secrets single of the year I'm totally loving was actually a faux-simultaneous cover song, à la Cher vs. the Byrds doing "All I Really Want to Do" in 1965. Earlier this year, "That's What Girls Do" saw its initial spring release as the single/video for the near terrific debut album Beyond Pink, (Edel/BAB Music), by NYC four-piece rock band (as opposed to vocal/dance group) RubyBlue, and the album seems to have disappeared from the face of the earth coincident with Edel America/Edel Entertainment's hazy in or out of business status.

The act's sort of an early Go-Go's-type semi-primitive outfit, and they're definitely playing on the album, 'cause the rhythm section's pretty stiff (and hence heavily "produced"). Also on the iffy side, the lead vocals of bassist Alexis Krauss are mostly just OK—let's say, better than That Dog or the M2M girls, but a halfcourt short of Belinda Carlisle, Kay Hanley, Helen Love, or Hoku.

There's some terrific songs, though. "Run Away" and "Through the Rain" rock as hard as anything Gina Schock ever pounded on, and "What Are We in It For" has a hook that keeps popping into my head entire days after last hearing it. Set-opener "That's What Girls Do" is of course identical to the hit version that, er, lifted RubyBlue's entire arrangement. (Production/recording credit for the whole album goes to semi-famed Eurodance producers the Berman Brothers, who in my record rack alone get props for great tracks/remixes for Amber, She Moves, Real McCoy, Baha Men, Jakaranda, and even Hanson). After three great toploaded songs (above), there's a full handful of extremely catchy mid/up-tempo cuts, plus one perfectly snappy Katrina and the Waves "Walking on Sunshine" homage, "I'm Gonna Make You Mine." On the negative tally-sheet side, I count only two duff ballads. Overall, swell.

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 Disney—and 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). Jeez—those 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? Everything—it'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's—not Gore's—voice 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 set—so, like the RubyBlue and Tik N' Tak near rarities, Leslie Carter's is a must for hardcore pop fans.

Back to the No Secrets debut, pick one up without hesitation for any grade-school or tweener-pop girl or boy in your house come holiday time, and tell Santa to just burn those Avril/Michelle/Vanessa "I'm an artist" angstathons. If Satan, I mean Santa, doesn't comply, why, just send him over to my East Bay, CA, abode and I'll kick his ass myself. (Personal to Michelle Branch: Yes, I know you know three chords on the guitar. QUIT PLAYING THEM.)

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