At first glance this vocal quintet appears to be a stateside answer to the Spice Girls. Look again and you'll find interconnections galore between this girl group, a certain hot boy band and two teen solo stars. Group founder Nikki DeLoach springs from the same Mickey Mouse Club cast that gave us Britney Spears
, Christina Aguilera
and 'N Sync's J.C. Chasez and Justin Timberlake
. The rest of the group's lineup was recruited by the latter's impresario mom, Lynn Harless, and once included Spears herself. Other Innosense members include Mandy Ashford and Danay Ferrer, former schoolmates of 'N Sync's Lance Bass and Joey Fatone respectively. Innocent? More like premeditated.
Innosense shares the videogenic appeal, synchronized dance moves and R&B-lite sound of their teen-pop brothers and sisters. But as this fluffy debut demonstrates, the act needs work. Though they can carry a tune nicely, they have a taste for toothache-inducing tracks such as "Beep Beep" and "www.fan-ta-see." They fare better on melodramatic ballads like "Rain Rain" and two Diane Warren tunes ("A Hundred Oceans" and "You Didn't Have to Hurt Me"). Next time, better material, girls.
Bottom Line: Cotton candy
Billy Ray Cyrus (Monument/Sony)
What with his achy-breaky heart and the weight of all that hair, Billy Ray hasn't had a chance to display much of a sense of humor. So it comes as a most pleasant surprise to hear "Hey Elvis" on this album. Co-written by Bryan Adams, the tune is a good-natured send-up of the Elvis-is-alive crowd ("Hey Elvis, is it really true/ We're waiting for a sign from you?"). Cyrus eventually succumbs to the temptation to mumble a Presleyesque "Thankyouverymuch," but most of the track is relatively restrained and benefits from a kicky arrangement by Cyrus and co-producer Terry Shelton. The rest of the album is, for better and worse, standard Cyrus, which means much of it sounds like the work of a frustrated heavy metal singer. "We the People," however, is a tolerable populist tune, and "Love You Back" plays nicely off the double entendre of the title; it's about a guy trying to rewoo his beloved. And "Burn Down the Trailer Park" is amusing in a raucous sort of way. Throughout, honky-tonk piano (by Tim Akers and Steve Nathan) enlivens even the less imaginative tunes.
Bottom Line: Offers some shelter from the rain
Robbie Williams (Capitol)
Album of the week
England's pop star of the moment hasn't made big waves on American shores. But in Europe 25-year-old Williams is all the rage. After getting dropped for bad behavior from the British boy band Take That in 1995, he reinvented himself as a multi-faceted pop crooner with last year's The Ego Has Landed. Suddenly his rough, regular-bloke attitude became his saving grace. And his wry lyrics made him all the more endearing. Once again, on Sing, he cribs without apology from Elton John, George Michael, Hall & Oates and the Beatles. But as blatant rip-offs go, this album is pretty appealing—and danceable too. "Let Love Be Your Energy," the bubbly opening track, floats along on its throbbing beat and a sassy bass line. The high-energy "Rock DJ" finds Williams an unconvincing rapper but an entertaining party host.
Bottom Line: Brit pop prankster scores big
Merle Haggard (Anti/Epitaph)
We should all be grateful that Merle Haggard is still performing—and in that same gloriously smooth and true voice too. As this latest CD confirms, Haggard at 63 sings with a passion and swing that would do a 23-year-old proud. He's still a masterly blues singer and still writes trenchant, sweet-melodied songs. (Haggard's band, the Strangers, remains full of verve as well.) He does show his age a little in the wistful, nostalgia-heavy tone of many of the album's 12 tunes, especially "Wishing All These Old Things Were New," "Proud to Be Your Old Man" and the title track. But with "Honky Tonk Mama," "Crazy Moon" and "Bareback," he lets us know there's plenty of vigor in the old boy yet.
Bottom Line: Master class
Fear not, teen pop stars: There is life after 20. Or even 30. Sarah Brightman, 38, is living proof. A disco queen in her native England at 17 with 1970s hits like "Love Crusader," Brightman made a splash in Phantom of the Opera and wed its creator, Andrew Lloyd Webber. One divorce and 10 years later, she's again finding success: Her latest CD, La Luna, currently tops Billboard's classical crossover chart.
What do you think of the term 'crossover hit'?
Oh, it's horrible! But I understand it. They have to categorize things so people can find things in record stores. For me, music is music.
Since 1997's multiplatinum Time to Say Goodbye you've been doing exceptionally well. Feel like a teenager again?
In my teens, I was successful but didn't have enough life experience to deal with it. I think now I really enjoy my success. I feel like I've earned it, and I deserve it.
So how's Andrew?
There's no animosity, but we've gone our separate ways. I've been working with my coproducer Frank Peterson for nine years. Frank and I did finally get together [as a couple]. I'm not sure anyone else could put up with me.
Read Chuck Arnold's Music Buzz column at www.people.com or AOL (Keyword: People)
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