Nick Carter (Jive)

On Carter's solo debut, the baby Backstreeter shows that at 22 he's not a boy, not yet a man. On the cheesy pop-rocker "Is It Saturday Yet?" (one of five songs he cowrote), he plays to the Nickelodeon crowd with an eighth-grade mentality better befitting his 14-year-old brother, Aaron Carter. Later, on the silly, suggestive "Miss America," he vainly attempts to put some stubble on his smooth-cheeked delivery as he sings, "Take it off, take it off/ Let's get it on, get it on." Marvin Gaye he's not. Even worse, though, is when Carter attempts to rock out on cuts such as "Girls in the USA" that make him seem like, at best, a junior Jon Bon Jovi. He's better off sticking to bouncy guitar pop and love ballads like "Who Needs the World" that take him back to Backstreet.

Bottom Line: Subpar solo

TLC (Arista)
Album of the week

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"Yo, remember me/ Left Eye, TLC," raps the late Lisa "Left Eye" Lopes on "Girl Talk," the funky, fresh-mouthed first single off TLC's fourth album. It is one of four tracks featuring Lopes, who died in a car accident last April, before this disc was completed. There are no solemn dirges here, though. In crazy-sexy-cool TLC style, the trio's surviving members—Tionne "T-Boz" Watkins and Rozonda "Chilli" Thomas—pay tribute on the rowdy, reggae-tinged party jam "Dirty Dirty." "Left Eye would want us to break it down like this," they rap—before, out of nowhere, they stop the groove with "Left Eye gets a moment of silence."

Elsewhere TLC continues to display the same kind of street sass that marked hits like "No Scrubs," whether they are dissing male sexual performance on "Quickie" or kicking a trifling lover to the curb on "Over Me." Once again they demonstrate an uncanny knack for incorporating up-to-the-second beats into their trademark hip-hop funk, with writing-producing contributions from Baby-face and Missy Elliott, among other top talent. The sultry-voiced Watkins cowrote 6 of 13 cuts, including the CD's best, most vulnerable moment: "Damaged," a Princely mid-tempo gem in the vein of "Unpretty," which reveals that underneath all that attitude, all they really want is a little TLC.

Bottom Line: Three cheers for 3D

Pearl Jam (Epic)

The title of Pearl Jam's seventh album suggests a return to the rage and roar of the band's grunge glory days in the early to mid-'90s. But don't break out the flannel, folks. This disc doesn't approach the raw, riveting intensity of the group's hallmark releases Ten and Vs.; in fact, it's strangely subdued at times, with dark, moody numbers that aren't nearly as accessible as the group's early work. Even the rockers, such as the f-word-ridden "Save You," don't really rock; there's not one arena-ready anthem in the bunch. On the CD's oddest track, "Bush Leaguer," front man Eddie Vedder speaks the verses in a deep drone as he takes a few swipes at President Bush: "He's not a leader, he's a Texas leaguer.... Born on third, thinks he got a triple." The song's utter lack of melody is indicative of Riot Act's bizarre dearth of hooks.

Not that there aren't a few tuneful moments, though. The first single, "I Am Mine," is a lilting, R.E.M.-esque beauty, while the dusty ballad "Thumbing My Way" finds Vedder, with his brooding baritone, at his most effectively earnest: "I have not been home since you left long ago/ Thumbing my way back to heaven."

Bottom Line: No pearl

Tony Bennett & k.d. lang (Columbia)

After lang appeared on both Bennett's 1994 MTV Unplugged disc and last year's Playin' with My Friends: Bennett Sings the Blues, the two song stylists hooked up for this full-length collaboration saluting the music of Louis Armstrong. On standards such as the title tune, lang benefits a lot more from the pairing than Bennett does. While she sounds a bit stodgy even on such swinging numbers as "I'm Confessin'," lang does connect better with the lyrics than usual, perhaps absorbing Bennett's interpretive powers. Bennett, though, reverts to some of the over-singing that characterized his early work. His voice, lived-in and unadorned, doesn't stand up well to lang's glorious, pitch-perfect instrument. Making matters worse for Bennett, producer T-Bone Burnett slathered a huge string section onto many of the tracks, overwhelming the contributions of Bennett's own quartet. In the end he might have been better off staying solo.

Bottom Line: Not so Wonderful

The Man Comes Around

Johnny Cash (Lost Highway)

Of all the duets Cash has sung with great singers during his 47-year career, none is more moving than the version of Hank Williams's "I'm So Lonesome I Could Cry" he does with alt-rocker Nick Cave on this wildly eclectic album. There are a number of other memorable tracks on American IV, the country legend's fourth collaboration with Red Hot Chili Peppers producer Rick Rubin. Four Cash originals are mixed in with unlikely covers such as an almost eerie rendition of the WWII anthem "We'll Meet Again" (a song that is given added poignancy by the 70-year-old's uncertain health). Less somber are Cash's touching version of "Danny Boy," recorded in a Los Angeles church, and a thoughtful variation on the Eagles' "Desperado," featuring Don Henley. Cash's cover of Depeche Mode's "Personal Jesus" is just plain peculiar, though, proving that even the Man isn't perfect.

Bottom Line: Cash is still (mostly) on the money

FLOETIC Floetry (DreamWorks) If Jill Scott could duet with her clone, they might sound like this British duo, with its flowing, jazzy fusion of spoken word and old-school soul. Check out their gorgeous demo of "Butterflies," a song they wrote for Michael Jackson's Invincible.

THE BEST & B-SIDES OF 1990-2000 U2 (Interscope/ Island) This timeless two-CD set is divided into hits (such as "Numb" and "Beautiful Day") and more obscure B-sides. Features two new songs, including the post-9/11 anthem "The Hands That Built America."

THE YOUNG AND THE HOPELESSGood Charlotte (Epic)

The Madden brothers—identical twins Joel (vocals) and Benji (guitar)—lead this quartet on a fun, adrenaline-fueled ride on Blink-182ish pop-punkers like the MTV hit "Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous."

  • Contributors:
  • Chuck Arnold,
  • Ralph Novak.