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THE HEARTTHROB METER

Playing grown-up

There was a time when teen idols just needed a good look and a fun sound. Now they also need a story to tell.

May 13, 2006|Ann Powers | Times Staff Writer

BACK when boy bands ruled, teen idols didn't need a great story to succeed. Groups like 'N Sync and the Backstreet Boys were really all about sound -- an adventurous, if critically derided, blend of rock, R&B, doo-wop and hip-hop typifying the millennium's crazy genre-crossing. But teen pop has both regressed and evolved. The sound is more narrowly cast; the stories grow ever more scripted.

Nick Lachey embodies this trajectory. The erstwhile Mr. Jessica Simpson began as a white soul boy in the surprisingly charming 98 Degrees (signed to Motown, no less) and kept on swinging on his tellingly titled, overlooked 2003 solo debut, "Soulo." But since television and the tabloids completely sucked him in, he's lost the beat.

Agonized yet perfectly modulated, Lachey's new release, "What's Left of Me," is a concept album -- perhaps the first in teen idoldom since the Osmonds' "The Plan." Divorce is a much more manageable subject than Mormonism, and Lachey and many collaborators nicely capture romantic loss' stages of grief. But the music is monochrome. One mid-tempo ballad drips into another, clean as the mildest Nashville country, with just a hint of modern rock.

Lachey's musical retreat confirms teen pop's most depressing trend: a return to stylistic segregation. Pop has always fluctuated between fruitful stylistic mixing (1950s rock 'n' roll) and division (progressive rock, American punk). Teen pop often pioneers vital hybrids. Right now, though, rockers and balladeers mostly stand on one side of the charts while hip-hop and R&B occupies the other. The prejudices related to that divide -- notably that rock is made by deep-thinking artists, while R&B originates from flashy entertainers -- are also creeping back.

Consider two rising rocker boys, Ashley Parker Angel and Teddy Geiger. Angel, once of the P. Diddy-produced, reality-TV-born band O-Town, returns Tuesday with "Soundtrack to Your Life," a story-based album with a clean modern-rock sound. Angel's transformation from gel-haired pop tart to shaggy surfer dude, documented on MTV's O-Town sequel "There and Back," is this album's story.

Angel's songs flesh out his rock rebel stance: He's a nonconformist who loves crazy girls and stands up for himself. The hip-hop production team of Soulshock and Karlin spearheaded this project, but the sound is all driving rhythms and guitar riffs, with Angel working hard on his sneer and nary a break beat in sight. No doubt Angel is making music he believes in, and that makes his tale triumphant. But all the passion in the world can't make him interesting.

Geiger has a story of a purer kind -- he's pop's favorite kind of savior, the prodigy. Though Geiger also emerged on the small screen, most visibly on the short-lived CBS comedy "Love Monkey," at 17 he's too young to have any break-dancing boy-band ghosts in his closet. On his debut, "Underage Thinking," Geiger plays eclectic pop on multiple instruments and sings with a bluesman's burr about gravity and other weighty things. His songs have a deft quality that suggests both innocence and skill. Geiger's talent is real, but it's also well-directed: The disc's executive producer is hit magnate Billy Mann, who's worked with Pink, Josh Groban, Jessica Simpson and, yes, Lachey.

What Mann has found in Geiger is a quality shared by slightly older top-shelf heartthrobs like John Mayer and Adam Levine of Maroon5: a soulfulness based on the careful absorption of classic rock and its antecedents, soul and blues. Though Levine has worked with Kanye West and Mayer has cut tracks with Questlove of the Roots, these stars never veer into Vanilla Ice-style tackiness. Geiger projects a similar sense of propriety; though young, he's a traditionalist, a perfect teen scream for conservative times. But pop's more fun when the usual story lines get broken. We'll have to wait for Justin Timberlake to come back and do that.

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(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)

Telling some tales from boyhood

Nick Lachey

"What's Left of Me"

Jive Records/Zomba Group

Released May 9

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Ashley Parker Angel

"Soundtrack to Your Life"

Blackground/Universal Music

Released May 16

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Teddy Geiger

"Underage Thinking"

Columbia/Universal Music

Released March 21

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