Marks of maturity are about as desirable on teen pop albums as in the faces of Hollywood starlets. Fans of Orlando-bred boy band 'N Sync will thus be relieved to find its music as carefully airbrushed as ever on No Strings Attached, the sequel to the 10-times-platinum 'N Sync.
The first two tracks, "Bye Bye Bye" and "It's Gonna Be Me," are from the same Swedish dance-pop factory as previous hits by 'N Sync, the Backstreet Boys and Britney Spears, as well as Sweden's own Ace of Base. Not surprisingly, given contemporary radio's addiction to formula, "Bye Bye Bye," the first single of No Strings, is already getting lots of airplay.
Although the title track is credited to 'N Syncer JC Chasez, along with Alex Greggs and Bradley Daymond, it's a page right out of Max Martin's book -- and you know if the For Dummies people haven't contacted him yet about writing one, they must not realize hit songwriting is a lot less complicated than, say, Windows '98. "Bringin' Da Noise" is supposed to be a funk track, but it has the same thwinky-thwinky programmed drums and cheesy synthesizers as the pop stuff.
Although there is little evidence of artistic growth and none whatsoever of originality on No Strings, 'N Sync does at least make some effort to distinguish itself from the burgeoning hordes of Backstreet Boys clones. 'N Sync does a creditable Boyz II Men impression on the closing a capella ballad, "I Thought She Knew," showing off its clean vocal harmonies.
'N Sync tries for a somewhat harder urban sound with the Teddy Riley-penned and -produced "Just Got Paid." Unfortunately, his New Jack Swing is getting pretty long in the tooth. 'N Sync sounds a tad silly singing about "posses" and "rides," not to mention asking everyone to "say ho, say ho ho, say ho ho ho." Plus, now that they've sold in excess of 10 million albums, when Chasez, Justin Timberlake, Chris Kirkpatrick, Lance Bass and Joey Fatone warble "Just got paid, Friday night," it's a little hard to imagine them hitting the check-cashing store.
'N Sync sounds more contemporary on another urban track, "It Makes Me Ill," written by Kevin Briggs and Kandi and produced by She'kspere. The skittery mix is drum 'n' bass-influenced and relatively uncluttered. Alas, 'N Sync pulls right back on the next track, "This I Promise You," a vapid Richard Marx ballad.
Despite its allegiance to well-aged pop formula, 'N Sync tries to get futuristic on the laughable "Space Cowboy (Yippi-Yi-Yay)," a collaboration with no less a visionary than Lisa "Left Eye" Lopes.
'N Sync should probably be congratulated for managing to vary the formula a little bit, while still providing enough of the same old same old to make the album a solid commercial success. There's nothing to win new converts, but more importantly, nothing to scare away fans of 'N Sync.