Thursday, December 4, 2008

"WELL, BABY, I'M A PUT ON A SHOW KIND OF GIRL"

Britney Spears CDs are more or less made for the gym. The perfunctory ballad or two aside, the singer rarely disturbs the groove. (Her superstardom remains a mystery to me, considering that she's spent most of her post-"...Baby One More Time" recording career being upstaged by her producers.) Never was the workout potential of her music stronger than with last year's Blackout, an accidental near-masterpiece (in spite of, or perhaps thanks to, Britney's apparent lack of involvement) with enough kinetic energy to get you through a non-stop hour-long cardio spree. Circus, her sixth studio album (who thought she'd stick around so long, or that we'd still care a decade later?) won't keep you ticking quite so relentlessly, but in some ways, it's even more gym-appropriate. Listening to it induces reactions similar to those brought on by a reluctant trip to the gym.

In pre-release interviews, Britney promised a more urban-sounding record, which she doesn't even come close to delivering. She covers just about every other base--pop, rock, dance, trip hop, techno, etc.--but leaves out the soul. In fact, despite the pervasive electro-pop sheen, Circus might be her poppiest record since 2000's Oops!...I Did It Again. And as state-of-the-art 21st-century R&B goes, "I'm A Slave 4 U" from 2001 blows away everything on Circus. One can, however, probably safely assume that Britney's Circus will out-soul Take That's The Circus, which also was released this week. So much for naming un-conventionalism.

But getting back to the gym. Making it through the first three tracks is like huffing and puffing through the warm-up period. You find yourself sluggish, distracted, constantly wondering, What am I doing here? "Womanizer," which kicks things off, might be her first No. 1 single since her career-opening (and defining) "...Baby One More Time" almost exactly 10 years ago, but the song also sounds like it could have been the follow-up to that classic. It's a step in the wrong direction: backwards. The next two tracks do nothing to advance Britney's cause--or her sound.

Things start to pick up four songs in with the delightfully over-produced "Kill The Lights"-- complete with propulsive shuffle beat, spooky synth side-effects and back up "whoos" on the first verse--and you begin to think, Hey, maybe I can see this through. After a sharp dip mid-album with the juvenile, singsongy "If You Seek Amy" (that's right, F-U-C-K Me!), Circus regains momentum and starts to hit its stride with two atmospheric mid-tempo tracks in the vein of In The Zone's "Early Mornin'" and Blackout's "Heaven On Earth" but not quite on par with either, and one '60s-style go-go pop romp called "Mmm Papi." It's not until track 10, "Mannequin," the only thing here even remotely resembling contemporary R&B, that Circus truly inspires dedication to the groove--or to the treadmill. The producers are finally hitting all the right beats, and for the first time, the benefits of a more clear and present Britney are evident.

By the final song, "My Baby," a slobbering, sappy love note to her two tots, it's cool-down time. If you're like me, you'll skip it and head for the shower. But then you'd miss the bonus cuts (which vary, depending on what country you live in). Stick around and some of them (particularly "Amnesia," a pulsating rocker about losing your mind in the throes of lust... um, love, and "Trouble," which is propelled by a hard-core early '90s techno beat) might actually send you back to the cross-country ski machine, baby, one more time.
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