Insight into love? Nah, but you can dance to it

Times Staff Writer

With all the bumps, twists and turns Jennifer Lopez has navigated on the rocky road of love, you'd think she'd have some hard-won wisdom to share on her new album, especially one that's called "Rebirth" (in stores Tuesday). Yet after spending time with the record, Lopez fans may feel like a golf nut who gets an hour with Tiger Woods and only hears him expounding on the wonders of ice cream.

Despite the romantic rollercoaster she's ridden with such love interests as Sean Combs and Ben Affleck before tying the knot recently with singer-actor Marc Anthony, the main theme of "Rebirth" is that J. Lo likes being in love.

Someone who took herself seriously as an artist might have taken these peaks and valleys and distilled those experiences into revelatory examinations of what she's learned about herself.

But even as she closes in on 35, it seems Lopez, who has sold more than 10 million albums in the U.S., still prefers J.Lo to Jennifer, the celebrity over the living, breathing, feeling human being.

Unlike 2001's "J.Lo," on which she co-wrote most of the songs, she put her pen to paper only twice in this batch of tunes, whose primary goal seems to be motorvating feet onto a dance floor. Or bodies into a boudoir.

She's got some of the beats to keep the dance club pulsing, the best of which is the edgy hip-hop funk of "Whatever You Wanna Do," produced by Rich Harrison and Lopez's co-executive producer Cory Rooney, the team that produced most of the album. Other contributing producers include Rodney Jerkins, Timbaland and Big Boi.

Oddly, the production in most songs allows lots of open sonic space that reinforces the wispiness of her voice, which rarely ventures out of a mid-range comfort zone. Beyonce she ain't, much less Alicia.

"Get Right," the alpha and omega of the album -- the first version features just Lopez and the second adds some rapping by Fabolous -- is typical of the level of ambition: "Your lips talking 'bout I play too much/Can't a woman take advantage of what she wants?"

She's more focused on getting props as a homegirl from the 'hood (with the Fat Joe duet "Hold You Down") than revealing what's going on in her heart.

But just when you think she's completely walled herself off from genuine emotion, a pair of songs pop up to suggest maybe there's more here than the bod-revealing glamour photos throughout the CD booklet.

"He'll Be Back" takes a respectable stab at capturing the feelings of denial that typically hit one partner when a relationship melts down. Even better is "(Can't Believe) This Is Me," which Lopez, Anthony (who also produced the track) and Rooney co-wrote and which produces surprisingly touching thoughts on the emotional gulf that opens up when love sails out.

"Rebirth"? Hardly. But at least there are signs of life.


Womack upholds country tradition

Lee Ann Womack, the woman behind the inspirational country-pop crossover hit "I Hope You Dance," wouldn't be the first person you'd expect to carry the torch for country music tradition.

But on her sixth studio album, the Texas native not only mines the sound of classic country but also delves into the heart of the tricky human emotions that so many of her peers sidestep in these days of facile "I'm OK, you're OK" optimism.

The title song explores faithlessness from the cheating woman's viewpoint, the first sign that Womack is interested in jabbing at the conventional mores that still dominate the music coming out of Nashville.

"One's a Couple" is a concise treatment of the way memories can haunt the present, with the kind of skilled phrase-turning that recalls the heyday of honky-tonk: "Two years ago he left me, now his memory's back around/One's a couple, two's a crowd."

Rather than resurrect the generic characters and stock situations that too often populate current songwriting, Womack has chosen a dozen songs that feel like the product of real lives. She sings them with a lived-in voice that evokes the vulnerability of Dolly Parton, the steely conviction of Tammy Wynette and the emotional integrity of Alison Krauss and Emmylou Harris.

The album formally concludes with "Stubborn (Psalm 151)," the kind of hard look inside that's also a rarity in commercial country today: "I'm surrounded by the demons in this room/And there's no one here but me." It's followed by a hidden track, a performance of Parton's wistful "Just Someone I Used to Know" that seals Womack's link to the great women of country who have preceded her.

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