Selling Points

Photo: AP/Wide World Photos

In a music industry that considers Pink a punk and Eminem eloquent, it’s no surprise that we’re being asked to accept former ‘N Sync front man Justin Timberlake as a soul man on his debut, Justified. To be fair, in interviews Timberlake has praised R&B’s inventive, open-minded past moments like “New Jack Swing” instead of the music’s more noxious, misogynist current moment. And Timberlake’s croon – the rare voice in pop that isn’t oversung or paper-thin – made ‘N Sync’s sole venture into soul music, “Girlfriend,” sweetly compelling.

On Justified, Timberlake has teamed up with the Neptunes, the Virginia Beach– based production duo behind “Girlfriend” as well as just about everything else on the radio right now, from No Doubt to Noreaga. The stamp of the Neptunes’ Pharrell Williams – breathy vocals, sugary sentimentality, and bridges that recall the early-eighties work of Michael Jackson or Prince – is unmistakable here.

Timberlake and the Neptunes work hard at creating memorable songs, an admirable undertaking given the pathetic state of songwriting in pop music. But little more is expressed in songs like “Señorita” and “Take It From Here” than flowery notions of romance or brusque come-ons. To anyone who’s followed the astonishing career of the Neptunes, this isn’t surprising; they’ve always been better with beats and bass lines than with lyrics.

The ideal partner for Timberlake would have been Rodney Jerkins, a producer and songwriter so adept at expressing love and heartbreak that sometimes it seems as though he’d crawled inside the head of every couple on earth. But then again, two of Jerkins’s most recent projects, Michael Jackson’s Invincible and Brandy’s Full Moon, were commercial disasters. Timberlake’s solo debut is on track to sell more than 600,000 copies in a single week. These days, that’s all the justification you need.

TLC have the trappings of a wild bunch – the trio’s been struck by everything from arson charges to bankruptcies – but their mayhem is usually kept off the record. Their new album, 3D, was mostly finished before the group’s final moment of drama: the death of rapper-vocalist Left Eye in a car crash. But like the TLC albums that preceded it, 3D repeats their signature mix of innovative beats (“3D Intro”), sappy uplift (“Damaged”), and tough-gal disses ("Over Me”).

Fortunately for TLC, there are always a few irresistible pop songs among such preprogrammed stuff: the wiry, guttural chords and hand claps of “Girl Talk” recall the street funk of James Brown’s “The Payback,” while the arrhythmic beats and Left Eye’s unhinged rants like “You need some ginseng for your thing thing so we can do it!” on “Quickie” bring a much-needed sense of lunacy to a group who seem more restrained inside the studio than out.

Charitable fans and critics will probably seize on the few sparks generated by 3D to eulogize TLC as vanguards. The truth – that their riskier impulses were often tamped down by a conservative industry – is somewhat more depressing. A few months before her death, Left Eye told me that her wish list of producers (which included house-music wunderkind Chris Brann) had been rejected by her record label. That sense of adventurousness, and not the relatively tame 3D, should stand as a testament to the singer.

New York’s new-music scene has been celebrated here and in countless other publications, but a stunning release like Outhud’s Street Dad makes one realize just how hot things are getting in the city.

Originally from Sacramento and now based in New York, this fivesome makes moody, wide-screen rock textured with all manner of influences from dub reggae to funk. Band member and mixer Justin Vandervolgen layers disruptive, percussive crashes that make for totally unique music: Imagine U2 recording in Lee “Scratch” Perry’s Black Ark Studio.

New York rock is often criticized for being little more than the sum of its influences. But acts like Metro Area, LCD Soundsystem, and now Outhud prove that a mutant musical sensibility is starting to take shape here. As pleasing as pure-rock revivalists like the Strokes and the Walkmen can be, the real promise of New York music lies in such miscegenated stuff.

Justin Timberlake
Justified (Jive)

3D (Arista)

Street Dad (Kranky)

Selling Points