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Pop reviews — week of Dec. 8

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Britney Jean

Britney Spears

Gaga, Katy and Miley may be all the hype at the moment, but Britney Spears has had it far longer while selling far more records. While the first three sweated in the studio for the last year, Spears coolly marched through The X Factor, plus duets with Cyrus (Brit’s the best thing on Bangerz), plus yet another fragrance line, while recording this inventive, occasionally heavy-handed, electro-pop crusher.

The heaviest hand is that of producer will.i.am. His version of EDM is sometimes rote, and his raps (It Should Be Easy) add little to Britney’s sound. But he does bring Work Bitch to life with an aggressive, scorched-earth approach. Madonna’s onetime mixologist William Orbit creates a similarly creepy, futurist-funk soundscape in Alien for steely soul of the highest order.

Producers aside, Spears herself is Britney Jean’s star, something electro-pop doesn’t easily allow room for: a true, even earnest, presence. Perfume is a genuinely emotive, ’80s-ish power ballad (co-penned by Spears with folk-popper Sia). The midtempo Passenger asks its audience to walk in her shoes with a tear, and Don’t Cry is an old-fashioned breakup stunner with a silvery, bittersweet sheen.

— A.D. Amoros

Philadelphis Inquireri

Blame It All On My Roots

Garth Brooks

Garth Brooks offers fans a Christmas gift with a discount-priced box set that takes another look back rather than moving forward.

Blame It All On My Roots is a massive, eight-disc package. Four CDs are devoted to the Oklahoman covering classic songs from country, rock, soul and acoustic singer-songwriters. Two CDs are a previously available greatest-hits double disc set, and two DVDs present a concert in Las Vegas and most of his old music videos.

The covers lean heavy on songs nearly every listener will know, giving it a Garth-does-karaoke feel. Heard It Through the Grapevine, Sweet Home Alabama, Great Balls of Fire and Mrs. Robinson are among the choices — songs still heard across America daily on the radio. There’s not a song among the 40 new cuts that presents a lesser-known song important to Brooks.

As would be expected, Brooks connects best with the country covers: His version of Hank Williams’ Jambalaya and a duet with wife Trisha Yearwood on After the Fire Is Gone deserve airplay.

On the other hand, the soul songs suffer from canned arrangements and from Brooks straining to bring Wilson Pickett-style growls and grunts to vocals that are otherwise serviceable, but never remarkable. The Nashville studio musicians do better at injecting life into classic rock and the songwriter numbers, staying exceedingly faithful to the originals.

The Brooks faithful will enjoy hearing their hero sing these familiar songs. But will it bring him any new fans, expand his audience or help him find new glory more than a decade after his retirement? That will have to wait for his return to recording original material.

— Michael McCall

Associated Press

A Permanent Member of the Family

Russell Banks

The 12 stories in Banks’ new collection, A Permanent Member of the Family — his first since The Angel on the Roof — are about moving on, the characters looking at the narrowing of life.

There’s Howard, the protagonist of “Transplant,” who agrees to meet the young woman whose husband’s heart now beats in his chest, or Connie, the 73-year-old father of three law-enforcement officers who in “Former Marine” decides to make ends meet by robbing a number of local banks. These are classic Banks characters: taciturn, proud of being self-sufficient and yet at the very point when self-sufficiency may no longer be enough.

“No news is good news, Dad,” Connie’s son Jack tells him, making conversation over breakfast. But for the older man, this is just one more symbol of his disconnection. “I wouldn’t mind any kind of news, actually,” he replies.

Lest such a response come off as self-pitying, it isn’t — that’s not really part of Banks’ lexicon. Even Harold Bilodeau, who spends “Christmas Party” navigating a holiday gathering hosted by his ex-wife and her new husband, doesn’t feel sorry for himself exactly, although he is a little lost.

It is this lostness that Banks means to explore: what it’s like to be a person for whom the future is a set of loose ends. “He felt his chest tighten and his arms grow heavy,” he tells us of Harold. “She was still beautiful to him, and she was growing older, and he wasn’t going to be able to watch it happen, except from a distance.”

— David L. Ulin

Los Angeles Times


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