Music Monday: "10," New Kids On The Block

Monday, April 01, 2013

source: New Kids On The Block Facebook page
New Kids On The Block fans can rejoice -- there's finally new music after 5 years! The "10" album is apparently named as such because it's their 10th release, but they've cheated a little by counting their greatest hits albums. Yes, albums. Because who would've thunk they'd actually resurrect from the boy band dead and sustain a career for another 5+ years? (Here's a short video of the 9 albums leading up to the release of "10," and a nice overview of the past 27 years of NKOTB.)

Although the album doesn't release until tomorrow, I've given the live stream a few listens and I feel that I've gotten a good sense of the album, which I can sum up in one word: schizophrenic. Their previous album, "The Block," had a much more uniform sound in comparison to "10." The upside of having a sort of undecided sound to a record is that there's a better chance of having something for everyone: there are a couple of particularly commercial songs on this album, a handful of "throwback" songs, a handful of mellow songs, and then there are the miscellaneous dance songs that, to me, sound like they have no place being on a New Kids On The Block album. But maybe a Pitbull album.

Overall, it sounds a lot more Adult Contemporary, almost verging on (and I feel I'm gonna get some internet death glares for saying this) Backstreet Boys territory. There's a sort of vanilla smoothness to the production of this album that wasn't necessarily there in any of their previous albums, mainly because they've always had a bit of a more urban edge to them, rather than straight-up, innocuous pop. And that's something I've been saying (mostly to myself) for some time now -- the New Kids' niche within the boy band world is in the R&B/urban aspects of pop music, and that's something they should stick to, because they have the voices and "street cred" to pull it off, they sound great doing it, and it's maintained a fresh appeal for them over the years.

This is not to say that "10" doesn't have its upbeat, fun moments ... it would utterly shocking to me if a boy band that's generally known for being fun-loving and cheeky released a completely humorless album. For that, you've got the lead single, "Remix (I Like The)," which isn't my favorite, but it's fun, catchy, and anthem-y and highly reminiscent of "Hangin' Tough" from the good old days. There's "Crash," "The Whisper" and "Now or Never," which is one of the strangest -- yet most commercial -- songs on the album for me.

I know artists don't like to be labeled or compared to other artists, but sometimes it's warranted because the sound of a particular song is just so, so similar to another artist's. The melody of "Now or Never" sounds very, very similar in parts to "Live Your Life" by T.I. "Now or Never" is all over the place, but in a far tidier way than some of the other tracks on this album ("Take My Breath Away," "Crash"). This song incorporates an acoustic guitar, an electropop beat, and sounds almost like a club song during the chorus. The song has quite a summery feel to it, which, upon second listen, has ska-rock-ish influences to me. I know, that was probably one of the weirdest things I could've put in a sentence about the New Kids On The Block. But throughout the song, there's this incessant nagging feeling that I've heard it all before, somewhere else ... and I remember where. It's as if T.I. and Len ("Steal My Sunshine"), Tommy Lee (2005 solo record), Limp Bizkit, the Backstreet Boys ... and maybe someone like The Partridge Family (just to balance out all the gloom and doom) got together and had a love child.
source: NKOTB Facebook page

A song that I think would do well on pop radio, if the New Kids still have those sorts of aspirations (they parted ways with Interscope Records prior to recording "10"), is the song "Fighting Gravity." Listening to the intro, I really thought the song was going to take us someplace we'd never been before, but then the drums set in and the song immediately fell into place as one of those ambiguously late '90s-late '00s classic pop songs. But there's a very interesting hopeful quality to this song, interesting that it's the kind of hopefulness mostly given to pop songs made by and for an audience of teenagers and young adults. The combination of the music itself, the lyrics and the delivery makes this song seem youthful in a way that you'd expect this song to be one of those Nickelodeon faux-boy bands, like Big Time Rush or something (I've never heard any of Big Time Rush's music, so I could be totally wrong). "Fighting Gravity" would fit in on the radio right now, I swear.

When I say that "10" is schizophrenic, I don't just mean in the album's overall sound, but within the songs themselves. "Crash" and "Now or Never" are probably the worst offenders in terms of being all over the place, but some of the ballads and mid-tempos have been struck with the ailment as well. There are a lot of false starts, where the intro will give you a mellow house beat or R&B vibe, but by the chorus, you've got some sort of crazy heart-pounding techno or top 40 club beat going on. My heart can't handle that! Of all the slower songs, "Take My Breath Away" is by far the most trippy. By song's end, I get a strange Justin Bieber circa 2012 feel to it.

My two favorite songs on "10" both fall into the ballad/mid-tempo category, as if that's any surprise. "Miss You More" is one of those very many songs that starts off with a pop-R&B beat and, surprise surprise, actually follows through on it. This song does have a slight Backstreet Boys-esque sound to it, but it's slightly more complex than your average BSB song. The harmonization on this track is fantastic fantastic fantastic, and I think lyrically, "Miss You More" is one of my favorites on the entire album. The song is sexy in a sad and haunting way (my favorite type of song), and the delivery of the pain and despair in the lines "you don't even know what you do to me / how I'm drowning in your memories ... you don't know it rips out the heart of me / every time I wake up here alone" is so incredible that it feels real.

But my ultimate song on "10" (and now also in my top 3 favorite NKOTB songs of all time) is "Jealous (Blue)." This song is more difficult to describe, which to me is usually a mark of an innovative song -- one that gives you more of a vibe or a mood. I love the name, first of all, and I think it's rather reflective of the type of song it is. The vibe I get from this song is late spring/early summer, late night in the city, the sky a murky blue-black color. This song, to me, is blue-black. And Doc Martens, paired with an otherwise serious and classy outfit. But if I had to describe it in a more technical way, I'd say the style of the intro is very early '90s, the beat is somewhat late '90s, and this song is the best of the '90s, but produced in a '10s way. Match that with the ever-so-slightly dark (but beautiful and sexy) vocals by Jordan and Joe ... I feel like this song exemplifies exactly the kind of music the New Kids should be doing, along with slightly softer R&B songs. This is New Kids perfection, and I could listen to this song on repeat forever. And that outro ... wow.

What I love about "10" is that it's probably the most vulnerable album the New Kids On The Block has made so far. The ballads and softer mid-tempos give the complexities of Joe and Jordan's voices a platform on which to shine. And Joe's voice really does shine on "10" -- on songs like "Back To Life," you can hear the different tones and textures of Joe's voice particularly well: the tender, the rock, the rasp. Jordan's voice, in comparison, is not as chameleon-like, but it excels in the sexy and the vulnerable. Donnie, oddly enough, really takes a vocal leap by taking on the higher full-voice parts on this album -- and he's not half-bad (much better than in the '80s and '90s). The more contemporary, upbeat songs maintain the sense of fun and irreverence the New Kids were known for in their youth, but somehow, those songs by and large miss the mark for me. But the New Kids, well into their 40s, still know how to stay musically relevant [I resisted spinning "You Got It (The Right Stuff)" into a pun right there], and this album will most likely take its place as my third favorite NKOTB album, after "Face The Music" (1994) and "The Block" (2008).

Now I'm gonna go and listen to "Jealous (Blue)."

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