They're hangin' tough

New Kids on the Block

"The Block"



On their first album since 1994, the thirtysomething members of New Kids on the Block make remarkably little attempt to conceal their ages. There's one song called "Grown Man," for example, and there's another in which the hook goes, "I'm a big boy / You're a big girl now."

"The Block" even ends with a bit of in-the-studio chatter between Donnie Wahlberg and one of his children -- not the most efficient way of distracting us from the fact that these backstreet boys are well on their way to becoming middle-aged men. (On the other hand, the album does include a track called "Sexify My Love," which is certainly a mistake nobody over the age of 16 should make.)

Perhaps the surest sign of the New Kids' maturity here is the surprising strength of most of the material. They've been around long enough to know what a hit sounds like, and they're wise enough to know that they don't have forever to rebuild a following. So "The Block" comes loaded with sure-thing collaborations with radio-pop rainmakers such as Timbaland, Akon, Ne-Yo and Polow da Don, each of whom treat the project with respect, not condescension.

The best cuts exude an understated confidence the old New Kids never had: In "Click Click Click" they layer sleek blue-eyed soul vocals over a hushed computer-music groove, while "Twisted," the Timbaland track, sets angelic harmonies against a menacing synth riff. "Grown Man," produced by new jack swing maestro Teddy Riley, even makes clever use of a sample of "Chain of Fools."

Considering Top 40's predilection for unlined young faces, "The Block's" unexpected quality is no guarantee of a commercial rebirth for NKOTB, who play the Staples Center on Oct. 8. Believe it or not, though, they've got the right stuff.

-- Mikael Wood

A country soul in a strange world

Rodney Crowell

"Sex and Gasoline"

Yep Roc

*** 1/2

Affairs of the heart have long been the domain of esteemed country singer and songwriter Rodney Crowell, and he hasn't abandoned that territory in his latest effort, in stores today. But the real fire ignites in the title track and several other songs in which Crowell tries to sort out a culture where "it don't make much sense that common sense don't make no sense no more," as his peer John Prine once put it.

"Sex and Gasoline" decries the destructive messages about the female body that pummel women and girls by the minute. With Dylanesque bite, he boils the problem down succinctly: "Pop religion, bullwhip thin / Say you ain't nothin but the shape you're in." Then in "The Rise and Fall of Intelligent Design," he questions long-held assumptions about the ever-forward march of progress. Joe Hen- ry's edgy production amplifies the muscle of Crowell's lyrics and the immediacy of his vocals.

Along with peers such as Emmylou Harris and John Hiatt, who also launched their careers in the '70s, Crowell seems to have found the fuel to just keep getting better.

-- Randy Lewis

It's bankrupt in music and lyrics

Young Jeezy

The Recession

Def Jam

* 1/2

With his third Def Jam album, Atlanta rapper Young Jeezy, born Jay Jenkins, has the formula down pat: dull, dumb, sporadically rhymed raps paired with bloated blockbuster beats bursting with leaden, dragging drums and cavernous synthesizers. The album's lone anomaly is the Kanye West-aided smash single "Put On." Yet that track's success only serves to highlight the stark differences between the charismatic and complex West and the stagnant, superficial Jeezy.

Presenting himself as the ultimate dope boy made good, Jeezy has sidestepped questions of skill by promoting himself as less MC than aspiration ideal.

One can argue the dubious merits of his philosophy -- which can be distilled to two words: sell coke -- but one can't deny Jeezy's popularity. His previous two efforts went platinum, with sales partially fueled by the rapper's "Snowman" T-shirt line.

Jeezy's sonic sins would be partially pardonable were "The Recession" to flash any hint of fun or humor. Instead, the street-cred-consumed caricature is more content to rip off Tupac Shakur ("Hustlaz Ambition") and write abominable hooks.

-- Jeff Weiss

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