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New CD reviews: Mayer Hawthorne, Backstreet Boys

  • August 3, 2013 - 2:00 PM

POP/ROCK

Mayer Hawthorne, “Where Does This Door Go” (Republic)

Wearing a snazzy suit and casting yourself as a retro-soul act is a fine way into the music business, but a potential artistic dead end. Those attempting to paint themselves out of a creative corner in 2013 include Fitz & the Tantrums (with the hit-and-miss “More Than Just a Dream”) and JC Brooks & the Uptown Sound (with the breakthrough “Howl”). And now Mayer Hawthorne, the Ann Arbor-born, Motown-schooled slickster who’s on his third album (first on a major label), seems well positioned for stardom.

Working with a host of producers, including the ubiquitous Pharrell Williams, and making room for drop-ins by the likes of rapper Kendrick Lamar, Hawthorne makes his play with a laid-back, cool-as-a-cucumber lover-man persona. Occasionally, he slides into the wholly generic. (Did he really just sing, “We’ll forever be ships passing in the night?” in “Corsican Rose”? Yes, he did.)

Songs such as the lead single “Her Favorite Song” and “Reach Out Richard” show him stretching out sonically while showing off his aptitude for creating soothingly seductive ear candy that would sound right at home on 1970s AM radio.

Dan DeLuca, Philadelphia Inquirer

Backstreet Boys, “In a World Like This” (BMG)

Backstreet’s back, all right? It’ll be up to fans of Backstreet Boys whether they’ll want to change the question mark to its customary exclamation point after they hear the group’s new album.

Simple math says the odds are against the erstwhile boy band, despite its hysterical appearance in the recent movie “This Is the End.” The new album coincides with the 20th anniversary of the quintet’s formation.

“In a World Like This” is a dignified pop album. Sure, there are a few tracks that tone down the former bombast (“Make Believe,” “One Phone Call”) plus a few offbeat experiments (from the successful Black-Eyed-Peas knockoff “Love Somebody” to the hokey country-rock city-name check “Feels Like Home”). Yet “In a World Like This” is a well-crafted execution of solid material, more genuine and endearing than many might have expected.

There’s a healthy, though not obsessive, emphasis on the harmonies (as in the anthemic melancholy of “Permanent Stain”), and dominant lead singer Brian Littrell has improved with age, his 38-year-old voice resonating with a soulful maturity he simply didn’t have in his early 20s.

Meanwhile, the solid arrangements feature acoustic flourishes (such as on the old-fashioned charmer “Madeleine”), tastefully full-bodied orchestrations (the endearing “Trust Me”) and disarming elegance (the bittersweet “Breathe”).

The greatest liability here might be the Backstreet Boys’ name and its associations with vacuous pop for girls. Just maybe those old fans aren’t too jaded to appreciate their former idols.

Chuck Campbell, Scripps Howard News Service

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