New CDs: The Jonas Brothers, Inara George
The Jonases hit the right pop notes but offer little depth.
Jonas Brothers (Carlos Chavez / Los Angeles Times)
* * 1/2
The third album from the alpha boy band of the moment is certainly of the moment. Jersey-born Jonas siblings Nick (15), Kevin (20), and Joe (18) hit all the right pop notes with such numbers as the romping come-on "Got Me Going Crazy," the slightly funky "Burnin' Up" (a very pale imitation of Prince) and the emo-lite of brokenhearted ballad "Can't Have You."
Gazing at the musician brothers with their snappy suits and rocker-boy coifs, a lot of their fans' parent might find it hard not to think of the milky, dark-haired good looks of '80s heartthrob Rick Springfield (who's enjoying an echo of his own moment with the new album "Venus in Overdrive"). The muscular bubblegum of Springfield's "Jessie's Girl" lives on in the sound of the flirty "BB Good" and the aggressive "One Man Show."
The Jonases show more vulnerability with such numbers as the mid-tempo, yearning love song "Shelf" and the title ballad, with its plaintive vocals and subtle touches of piano and strings. Still, the album is mostly a bland gloss, offering no depth or cleverness in material that covers familiar territory (and is, as we are often reminded, usually co-written by all three brothers). At least the almost goofy, Beatles-y "Lovebug" -- with its background chatter and hanging-in-the-studio vibe -- creates the illusion of personality.
Along with scream-worthy cuteness, the Jonas lads (and their four-man backing band) offer their largely young-female audience a training-wheels version of classic male rock stars, all caught up in the bliss and drama of love. Although 21st century girls certainly deserve better, it's tempting to consider "A Little Bit Longer" safe as milk -- until you realize that the songs slot girls neatly into the clichéd roles of unapproachable object, clinging hoochie, hard-to-get prey or troublesome paramour. (There's even a tune about groupie leeches, "Video Girl," which is way too jaded for three young men who are so publicly religious and anti-premarital-sex.) Maybe this is, after all, your parents' rock 'n' roll.
Inara George with Van Dyke Parks "An Invitation" (Everloving Records)
* * * *
Inara George is the kind of artist who'll never get called experimental, because her music sounds so sweet. Yet she is a risk-taker -- just one whose voice is clear and accessible.
In the past few years, the 34-year-old L.A. native has worked her way through shoegazing folk with the band Merrick, a Joni Mitchell influence on her 2005 solo debut, internationalist pop with the Bird and the Bee, and Andrews Sisters harmonies with the Living Sisters.
"An Invitation" is her orchestral interlude with Van Dyke Parks, who has been a father figure since his hanging days with her dad, Lowell George. Empowered by this odd old pro, George goes somewhere new -- and historical: into the zone of theater music, between poetry and pop, where she connects with the spirits of Stephen Sondheim and Lorenz Hart.
And Dorothy Parker. Like that immortal poison-pen doyenne, George gets at the melancholy of the self-sufficient urban female by way of a wink and a smile. Her lyrics balance a yen for metaphor with an astringent wit. "I'm like a pet salamander," she sings in "Tell Me That You Love Me." "Just cut a few holes for some air, carry me everywhere."
Parks proves an ideal partner for George, who grew up studying Shakespeare and is married to a film director, Jake Kasdan. "An Invitation" sounds like a cast recording -- it's like "Enchanted" for grown-ups -- and the fact that George is the only voice heard reinforces its mood of semi-serene loneliness. The songs are mostly about love, but even with titles such as "Duet" and "Family Tree," they reflect the thoughts of a woman pondering things, not quite ready to offer her words to the world yet.
Parks' arrangements often aim for childlike wonder (he's known for having worked with Brian Wilson, but his music for the HBO kids' series "Harold and the Purple Crayon" is also excellent), and that too suits George, whose melodies are delicate and young-sounding. Less grand and far more worldly than "Ys," the Joanna Newsom collaboration that brought Parks back into the indie music spotlight, "An Invitation" suffers the danger of being overlooked.
Here's hoping it finds its audience: little girls, couples in love, anyone who dreams in Technicolor.
-- Ann Powers
Albums are rated on a scale of four stars (excellent), three (good), two (fair) and one (poor). Albums reviewed have been released except as noted.