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Bruise Boys

The Boys are back. But can they save their reputation?

Fifteen minutes of fame have never felt so long. With their third album, Black & Blue, the Backstreet Boys return with only seconds to spare, but is anybody listening?

It's been three years since the Boys first graced the U.S. pop scene. They've conquered the charts, dominated the airwaves and found their way into millions of teenage hearts. But the quintessential Gen-Y boy band is having growing pains. Can they conquer time and shirk the shadow of pop precedent?

Black & Blue, another saccharine-sweet aural overload, rings the death knell for the platinum quintet. Overproduced from start to finish, the album fails to achieve the mediocre heights of its predecessor, Millennium, and drips with a jaded "been-there-done-that" cynicism.

The lead single, "Shape of My Heart," is a copcat misfire. Its acoustic intro, ethereal vocal echoes and latent up-tempo explosion sound all too "I Want It That Way," the feel-good smash that afforded Millennium a glimmer of distinction. But gone are the interpret-as-you-may lyrics (Which way did they want it?) and comfortable tempo transitions. While catchy, "Shape of My Heart" is far from infectious.

Black & Blue wouldn't be a teen-pop creation without a gimmick cut, and "The Call" fits the bill. A tale of cell-phone infidelity, the track is one of a handful of so-so efforts. "Get Another Boyfriend" belongs in the same category, but the techno-distorted titular phrase is laughably unintelligible. Also on the short list is "The Answer to Our Life," a foot-tapping feast of unadulterated pop pleasure.

The remainder of Black & Blue's thirteen cuts are innocuously forgettable. On "Yes I Will," the Boys reach for the angst of Brian McKnight but fail to conjure the requisite emotion. "It's True" is a veritable ear-sore, dragging along with the uninspired momentum of a feminine-products TV jingle. And "Everyone," a mind-numbing salute to the Boys' beleaguered devotees, plays like a misguided reincarnation of Millennium's "Larger Than Life."

Perhaps most disappointing is the Boys' failure to challenge the creative boundaries they helped to establish. Black & Blue borrows heavily from its predecessors and Jive labelmates, with the distinctive backbeats of Britney's albums and the manic-depressive peaks and valleys of NSync's. Relying on a hundred-word vocabulary and a handful of unadventurous writers and producers, the Boys offer more of the same, a product littered with lyrical cliches and exploited sound-mixing gimmicks. A bad-news bellwether for a cresting craze, Black & Blue leaves the Backstreet Boys down for the count.


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