A boy band as puppets - what a concept. The cover photo and title of this, 'N Sync's third release - and the signal for a new round of cataclysmic screaming from the teen brigade - refers to the group's struggles to free itself from its former management (Lou Pearlman's ubiquitous Trans Continental empire) and its first record label (RCA), a battle that effectively left the group to its own devices to conceive and produce much of No Strings Attached. It's as carefully crafted and synthesizer- and groove-heavy as the quintet's 1998 debut, but 'N Sync is also presenting itself in a rougher and tougher light, hip-hopping more than bopping and taking no guff from either profit-mongering svengalis or - on the punchy first single, "Bye, Bye, Bye," as well as on "It's Gonna Be Me" - from women who have done 'em wrong.
Give 'N Sync props for taking the reins; JC Chasez co-writes and co-produces four of No Strings Attached's 12 songs, while his New Mickey Mouse Club cohort Justin Timberlake does the same on another. And the group recruited some impressive, high-cred collaborators, including She'kspere (for whom 'N Sync reportedly held up the album), Teddy Riley, and Riprock, as well as TLC's Lisa "Left-Eye" Lopes, who tosses off a quick rap in "Space Cowboy (Yippie-Yi-Yay)" (yes, that really is the title).
But 'N Sync's artistic boldness is still limited by its inherent vocal blend, which is smooth, silky, and far too Caucasian to make us really believe it can "pump that jam while I'm gettin' down." That's aptly illustrated by 'N Sync's cover of Johnny Kemp's 1988 hit "Just Got Paid," which, by hewing closely to the original, shows that the group lacks the kind of throaty, soulful weight these songs require to really fly. Or to be fly. And titles like "It Makes Me Ill," "Digital Get Down," and "Bringin' Da Noise" are as misbegotten as the performances.
Enter the ballads, which are less interesting melodically or sonically but which better fit what is, at its heart, a pop vocal group. So "That's When I'll Stop Loving You" and Richard Marx's "This I Promise You" are appropriately moony, while the a cappella "I Thought She Knew" testifies to 'N Sync's vocal prowess. Timberlake's "I'll Be Good for You" may provide the real model for what the group should be shooting for, a gently grooving piece of soul-lite that nicely accommodates 'N Sync's fluid delivery.
None of this, of course, will keep the palpitating hordes from taking No Strings Attached to diamond status overnight, but the album does show that while 'N Sync may have detached some of its business baggage, its creative course is still a work in progress.
File Under: Tearing up their contracts