POP REVIEW : Donny Osmond: Still Nice After All These Years

Times Staff Writer

Donny Osmond is back, but only to spout pop cliches that are more up to date.

Osmond, now 30, hasn't put out a record in the United States since the late 1970s. But the Irvine resident has a new deal with Virgin Records (so far only for releases in England), and a new five-man band that he is breaking in closer to home.

Osmond's early show Monday night at the Crazy Horse Steak House in Santa Ana was earnest, reasonably proficient and utterly formulaic--a little bit R&B;, a little bit rock 'n' roll, and a whole lot rehash. But, in keeping with his comeback hopes, Osmond rehashed the slick pop sounds of the '80s rather than the cute, middle-of-the-road fodder that made him a teeny-bopper idol through his teens--and put any real rock credibility out of his reach. If nothing else, Osmond's 75-minute show indicated that he is capable of playing the game according to its current set of rules. The sound that he and his five-member band served up had most of the ingredients of a good deal of the mass-appeal "product" dished out in the '80s. Keyboards tinkled and chimed, guitars ground and swooped, and songs substituted insinuating melodic hooks for substance.

Osmond played the '80s game best on a couple of rock ballads that called for straightforward belting. His attempts at R&B; were less successful. He tried to keep up with the Jacksons, Michael and Freddie, with keening falsettos, soul shouts and phrase-stretching embroidery. But the falsettos and shouts lacked ardor and assurance, and the embroidery was unimaginative and forced.

Osmond was more comfortable with pop-rock songs like "In It for Love," one of his British releases, which was accompanied by a gauzy, romantic video projected on the screens that flank the stage at the Crazy Horse. "Fire It Up," which appropriated the riff from "Bette Davis Eyes," was Osmond's most aggressive rocker, but it was no threat to his image as a nice, mild, clean-cut guy.

Osmond tried to assume a few of the trappings of a real rocker, appearing in a leather jacket and surrounding himself with players who, apart from his keyboardist, sported a scruffy, longhaired look. To his credit, though, he didn't try to break with his past by assuming a phonily hip persona. While trying to ignite an audience sing-along during "Fire It Up," Osmond let slip a potential double-entendre that a David Lee Roth, or any other rocker with the slightest bad-boy tendency, would have played for naughty laughs. But Osmond wasn't being sly; his meaning was innocent. Osmond had his wife, his three children and his sister, Marie, sitting right in front of him, but he isn't the sort to need any extra inducement to behave.

Osmond's enthusiastic audience, made up mostly of young women who may have come down with their first case of puppy love watching him on television 10 or 15 years ago, called out repeatedly for old favorites. He obliged with "Go Away Little Girl" but otherwise stayed with his new songs. The fans, many armed with flash cameras, responded warmly to the new material, but that didn't stop more than a few from shouting for Donny's oldies.

Called back for an encore, Osmond made an ill-advised nod to the past by coaxing his sister, Marie, on stage to sing their old television show theme. "I'm a little bit country," sang Marie. "I'm a little bit rock 'n' roll," answered Donny. He will probably never be more than that, either. Listeners who want more than "a little bit" out of pop music needn't pay any more attention to Osmond now than they ever did.

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