[15 October 2008]
You know something, I always admired the New Kids on the Block for resisting temptation and money and not getting back together. The Boston-based boy band that paved the way for *NSYNC, the Backstreet Boys, and a host of others had received several offers over the years following their 1994 split, from the folks that put together the MTV Video Music Awards, VH1’s Bands Reunited, and plenty others, and the answer was always “Nope.” “Hmmm…,” I thought, “these dudes have a lot more integrity than I initially pegged them for.”
That wasn’t to say that I wouldn’t be excited about a reunion if it were to happen, though. After all, being an NKOTB fan is no longer the guilty pleasure it was when I was in high school (especially if you’re a guy). Songs like “You Got It (The Right Stuff)” have become kitsch classics. Besides, if you’re a certain age, you may hate “Hangin’ Tough”, but I bet you know all the words.
After all the prior refusals, now Donnie, Danny, Joey, Jon, and Jordan have reformed after a decade and a half away. Granted, music has changed a great deal since they left the scene, but it’s not like the guys are dinosaurs. If Jay-Z and LL Cool J (ages 38 and 40, respectively) can still make records and be in touch with pop culture, the New Kids (who range in age from 35-39) certainly could fall in. However, The Block isn’t exactly the victory lap I was hoping for. While most of the album is listenable, there is a desperate undercurrent running throughout the album, as though the guys are trying too hard to prove their relevance by being trendy. The group is also overpowered by a host of big-shot producers and guest artists.
Issue #1 with The Block is that, with 17 tracks on the deluxe version (and an additional track if you buy on iTunes), the album is too damn long. Pull three or four songs out of the mix and you’re looking at a dramatic improvement in quality. Issue #2 is that way too many of the songs fall into the trap that befalls current music today. Men approaching forty who are still singing (or rapping) about partying in the club is not sexy. In addition to the often juvenile lyrics, the production is over-reliant on electronics. I don’t think there’s a live drum or an acoustic guitar to be found anywhere on this album. Too much of this album seems to rip off the style that Timbaland developed for acts like Nelly Furtado and Justin Timberlake (who should really fork over a portion of his next royalty check to the New Kids Retirement Fund). Hell, Timbo even pops up here himself, on the dramatic “Twisted”, a roller coaster of a song with an even more obvious new wave vibe than most of his current recent new wave-inspired work.
Issue #3, the biggest of all, is extreme over-use of the Auto-Tune gimmick. For those unfamiliar, Auto-Tune is a program that manipulates a singer’s vocals so that they sound almost computerized. Coming to prominence with Cher’s “Believe”, Auto-Tune has more recently found it’s poster child with T-Pain. But, here’s the thing: T-Pain can’t sing. The New Kids (well, at least Jordan and Joe) can sing. So the fact that 3/4 of the songs on this album contain at least some semblance of Auto-Tune leads me to believe that someone in the studio is getting money from whoever invented or owns this program. The gimmick renders otherwise merely tired songs like the eye-rollingly awful “Dirty Dancing” (complete with Patrick Swayze reference) and the self-explanatory “Sexify My Love” completely unlistenable. Actually, lots of the bad songs on this album sound like the result of a meeting Interscope head Jimmy Iovine must have had with his staff, asking his team of producers and writers to come up with a host of tracks that presumably would make the New Kids sound current (I’m sure he has his finger on the pulse of young America from his ivory tower). They’d have been better off shit-canning the likes of Polow Da Don (whose contribution is actually decent) and recruiting more mature, talented artists/producers like Robin Thicke (a fellow Interscope artist who co-wrote and produced much of Jordan Knight’s excellent 1999 solo debut).
New Kids fans also might listen to this album and wonder where the hell Danny Wood and Jon Knight went. While Jordan and Joe hold down the majority of the vocals, and Donnie fills out the occasional extremely computer-enhanced vocal, does all the rapping, and also wrote or co-wrote most of the album’s songs (and is the only group member listed as an executive producer), the ugly New Kid and Jordan’s blank slate brother don’t seem to do anything on this album other than appear on the cover and in the pictures in the CD booklet. Producer RedOne (who shouts his name on just about every second song on this album) gets more voice time on The Block than 40% of the group. Is it time yet to officially give Jon Knight an Andrew Ridgeley Memorial Award for contributing absolutely nothing yet reaping an equal share of the benefits?
So… yeah, the music. The Block fares best when the tempo slows down and the lyrics become more sensual than sexual. First single “Summertime” is a pretty and age-appropriate song about reliving memories of first love, while “Stare at You” is a piano-led beat ballad that features a winding melody and Jordan’s sweet falsetto, which is still sturdy after two decades. If the electronic percussion wasn’t so loud, this would be the perfect wedding song. “Click Click Click” has a moody, seductive vibe and woman-praising lyrics that will undoubtedly please the women that provide NKOTB with 95% of their audience, while “2 in the Morning” is a pleading ballad that comes out on the right side of whiny. Besides, any song that can rhyme “mad at me” with “Grey’s Anatomy” is good in my book. Even a couple of the peppier tracks work. “Officially Over” has a cute little piano riff that runs throughout the song (reminds me of Rowlf from The Muppets) and a candy-sweet chorus that masks the song’s somewhat sinister lyrical content, while “One Song” is the best late ‘90s-era boy band song that was never recorded by a late ‘90s-era boy band.
In what’s more or less a first for the New Kids, The Block has more than its share of guest stars. Ne-Yo adds a bit of Michael Jackson flair (and his superior lyrical talents) to the airy “Single”, while Akon (who co-wrote the aforementioned “Click Click Click” with Hakim Abdulsamad of ‘90s Motown group the Boys) appears on the super-catchy Put It on My Tab. Although the album stumbles with guest appearances from the Pussycat Dolls’ Nicole Scherzinger (attempting to channel Aretha Franklin on “Grown Man”) and a completely anonymous singer named Lady Gaga stinks up “Big Girl Now”, it’s all washed away by the historic summit with their boy band predecessors New Edition (minus wayward member Bobby Brown) on the club banger “Full Service”. While the song almost sinks under the weight of Auto-Tune overkill, it’s nice to hear both groups perform together after years of rumored bad blood. As if to make up for the fact that the New Kids took a template that New Edition made and became more successful while being significantly less talented, New Edition (particularly Ralph Tresvant and Johnny Gill) conspires to upstage the New Kids on this track.
Actually, it makes a lot of sense to close out this review with a comparison to New Edition. That particular group’s last album, 2004’s One Love, was a solid effort that lowered in quality from quite good to barely above average thanks to songs and production that tried a little too hard to be contemporary and fit in with current trends. The listenable parts were great, but the unlistenable parts were horrid to the point of being almost embarrassing. The exact same thing holds true for The Block. While the New Kids are definitely capable of making a great album (seriously…if you’re an R&B or pop fan, go to a used record store or half.com and pick up a copy of 1994’s Face the Music—you’ll be very pleasantly surprised), this album is only great in spots. While it’s nice to have the New Kids back on the block after a decade and a half away, you walk away from this album feeling like maybe they should have spent some of that time off learning to craft better material.