Britney's back, breathy as ever

The Baltimore Sun

With all her tabloid drama in the past few years (the wobbly marriage and messy divorce, the rehab, the custody battle, the pathetic MTV "comeback" performance), it's easy to forget that Britney Spears once made infectious and sometimes excellent pop music.

The sad details of her chaotic personal life have all but obliterated her success as a performer. But she remains one of the biggest-selling female artists of all time; she's sold more than 83 million albums since her 1999 debut, ... Baby One More Time.

Four years after her last studio album, 2003's In the Zone, Spears returns with Blackout, available Tuesday. Like its predecessor, the CD is sprinkled with irresistible bits of ear candy.

Spears' hit formula - pulsating club beats overlaid with layers of icy synths and breathy, heavily processed vocals - is still intact. Apparently, there's a demand for it, because Jive Records, Spears' label, pushed up the album's release date by three weeks.

Nothing on the CD is as adventurous as her last smash, the Grammy-winning "Toxic." Much of the music maintains a metallic, futuristic sheen, bolstered by Spears' robotic vocals.

The album opens with her current hit, "Gimme More," the throbbing number the pop superstar disastrously performed on the MTV Video Music Awards in September. The 11 other songs pulse in the same vein with little tempo variation. Featuring production by Danja, the Neptunes and others, Blackout breezes by in less than 50 minutes, so it's perfectly tailored for continuous club play.

Seemingly none of the chaos in her life has inspired any artistic depth. She remains the party girl up for a good time. Throughout the new album, she still equates maturity with transparent sexuality. The current single, "Get Naked (I Got a Plan)," and "Freakshow" are danceable examples. Spears pants her way through a web of palpitating beats, distorted noises and sharp synths.

But when some of the layers are stripped away and Spears' colorless vocals are pushed up, the results are very bland. "Heaven on Earth," for instance, starts off like a bad imitation of Donna Summer's "I Feel Love" before morphing into a cheesy synth concoction. Over it all, Spears sighs such cliched lines as "I've waited all my life for you." And "Radar" is overwhelmed by squishy synthesizers and compressed vocals.

But Spears and her production team redeem themselves on the suggestive "Perfect Lover" and the album's lone down-tempo number, the self-reflective "Why Should I Be Sad."

Although Spears has been incredibly successful with dance music, she has never been a trendsetter in the genre. She has managed to streamline progressive elements of it and gloss it up for pop radio - something Madonna did in the '80s but with more personality.

As it stands, though, Blackout is a solid album from Spears, one that shouldn't disappoint her many fans. Given all that she's been through since her last CD, it's amazing she was able to pull it off.

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