Packaging is paramount with the new teen idols

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Britney Spears

...Baby One More Time (Jive 01241 41651)

Anyone who wonders whether the current baby boom will have as marked an effect on popular music as the last one did need only look at the number of teen-idol acts crowding the pop charts. In the last few months, 'N Sync, the Backstreet Boys and 98 Degrees have all put singles into the Top 10, making teen pop a stronger force on the charts than it has been since the days of Bobby Rydell and Fabian.

What's interesting is that this new wave of teen idols is -- to cite an up-and-coming British combo -- pretty much a "Boyzone." Unlike the teen pop boom of the '80s, when Debbie Gibson and Tiffany were every bit as big as New Edition and New Kids on the Block, the stars of today's teen pop are almost exclusively male.

Britney Spears hopes to change that with her first album, "...Baby One More Time."

An energetically wholesome, aggressively marketed 16-year-old from small-town Louisiana, Spears epitomizes the modern idol aesthetic. Her songs are an easily digestible distillation of hip pop styles (hip-hop, dancehall, club music), while her singing offers a perfect balance between imitativeness and individuality. Naturally, her CD comes complete with an interactive CD-ROM element and a link to her Web site.

Spears, in other words, is a perfect pop product for the Playstation generation -- entertaining, accessible and slickly packaged.

Still, there's something vaguely endearing about how blatant Spears and company are about the teen merchandising game. As creepy as parents may find the "Britney Spears Official Fan Merchandise" catalog inserted in the CD (or the ad for the coming Backstreet Boys album tacked onto the end of the album), Spears' peers almost look forward to such features. After all, for many pre-teens, product news is the only news that matters.

Besides, Spears' music is itself a sort of salesmanship, selling a vision of teen life to kids too young to have experienced the real thing. Ballads like "From the Bottom of My Broken Heart" basically just peddle idealized heartbreak, doing for today's lovestruck youth what tunes like "Teen Angel" did for their parents (or grandparents).

If there's any real cause for complaint with Spears' music, it would be that it is such an obvious conglomeration of pre-existing pop sounds. The album's title tune sounds like Aaliyah produced by Ace of Base, while "Born To Make You Happy" comes on like a cross between Robyn and Mariah Carey -- though without the grit of either.

That probably won't matter to her target audience, though. With a teen star like Spears, what's being sold is the package, not the content. So why even worry about something as silly as originality? **

J.D. Considine

Classical

Michel Block

Schumann, "Novelletten," Opus 21, and encores by Debussy and Block (Pro Piano Records PPR 224514); Granados, "Goyescas" (Pro Piano Records PPR 224518)

Even piano aficionados under the age of 50 may not be familiar with the name of Michel Block. Block, now 61, was perhaps the most exciting and talked-about young American-trained pianist on the New York music scene in the early 1960s. In an era of clinically perfect, often lifeless playing, Block was an exciting risk-taker. He performed pieces as technically difficult as Stravinsky's "Petrouchka" with all the pyrotechnical display of a July 4th celebration or as musically challenging as Schubert's posthumous A Major Sonata with unaffected profundity and feeling.

Why Block did not achieve the fame attained by such contemporaries as Vladimir Ashkenazy, Martha Argerich and Maurizio Pollini no longer matters. What does is that these performances of Schumann's "Novelletten" and Granados' "Goyescas" (recorded live in 1980 and 1981 at Indiana University in Bloomington) are superb. His interpretations of Granados' "Goyescas" display imagination, rhythmical elan and knife-edge clarity that rival those of Alicia de Larrocha, and he has a more varied tonal palette and a bigger, warmer sound than the great Spanish pianist. His performances of Schumann's Novellettes are of equal stature. Other pianists -- notably Arthur Rubinstein and Sviatoslav Richter -- have recorded a few of these psychological depth charges with such gunpowder explosiveness. Only Block brings that quality to all of them. Both CDs: ****

Stephen Wigler

Jazz

Phil Woods featuring Johnny Griffin

The Rev & I (Blue Note 94100)

One standby of the hard bop era was the "cutting session" -- a recording that matched two or three horn players with eight or 10 tunes and encouraged each soloist to outdo the others. Phil Woods' new album with Johnny Griffin, "The Rev & I," looks to be just such a session. Not only does it bring together two hot, bop-schooled saxophonists, but it supports them with a rhythm section built around the strong, soulful work of pianist Cedar Walton. But even though tracks like "Red Top" throw sparks, the album as a whole never really catches fire. Instead of the inspired one-upmanship that drove the classic cutting sessions of the '50s and '60s, Woods and Griffin proffer a considered collegiality, complementing each other's strengths with each solo. Fun, but hardly a thrill a minute. **1/2

J.D. Considine

Rock/pop

The Black Crowes

By Your Side (Columbia 441404)

That the Black Crowes would rather recapture the grit and grease of '60s blues rock than do something original is beside the point. What matters is how close the band comes to achieving the same ragged abandon that made those old albums such classics, and the answer with "By Your Side" is: very close, indeed. From the bluesy grind of "Kicking My Heart Around" to the "Tumblin' Dice" guitars of the title tune, the Crowes have a total understanding of the style, playing with such complete authority that even borrowed licks sound wholly their own. But what really pushes their sound into the red is the way Chris Robinson's raw-throated vocals slide across the groove like bacon fat on a hot griddle, adding real soul to these songs., ***

J.D. Considine

Vic Chesnutt

The Salesman and Bernadette (Capricorn 314538 239)

Beautiful, quiet and poetically weird, Vic Chesnutt's "The Salesman and Bernadette" is a genre-defying disc that will charm you as it creeps you out. Its 14 tracks -- part country, part pop, part alterna-rock -- paint intoxicated images from the lives of two lonely lovers. The Nashville ensemble Lambchop provides an extra dimension of horns and backing sha-la-las for Chesnutt's warm, rough-hewn vocals, and Emmylou Harris joins in for a duet on the charming "Woodrow Wilson." Chesnutt evokes the strangeness of the mundane with literary flair on such tracks as the lively "Replenished," the darkly hilarious "Until the Led" and the sinister "Old Hotel." After five previous discs, the Georgia singer-songwriter has produced a surprisingly rich work that rewards repeated listenings. ***1/2

Greg Schneider

Sly and Robbie

Drum & Bass Strip To the Bone (Palm Pictures 60200 2004)

Given how much drum 'n' bass owes to the sound and aesthetic of dub reggae, it only makes sense to combine the two. That's precisely the idea behind Sly and Robbie's "Drum & Bass Strip To the Bone." As longtime reggae fans know, drummer Sly Dunbar and bassist Robbie Shakespeare are Jamaica's pre-eminent rhythm section. On this album, producer/remixer Howie B (who did U2's "Pop") fleshes out the duo's bare-bones pulse with additional instrumentation and treatments. It's not drum 'n' bass in the strictest sense -- there are very few amphetamined breakbeats in evidence -- but a pastiche of dub, ambient and other styles. As anchored by the indefatigable locomotion of Sly and Robbie, tracks like "Superthruster" seem on the verge of forging a new style, one that's as soulful as reggae yet as high-tech as club music. ***

J.D. Considine

Pub Date: 01/14/99

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