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Record Rack

Slumber party pop doubled

July 22, 2009|Margaret Wappler; Greg Kot; Mikael Wood

Jordin Sparks


19 Recordings/Jive Records

** 1/2

Demi Lovato

"Here We Go Again"

Hollywood Records


"American Idol" and Disney are the two strongest pop machines in music today. This week, two of their most promising talents released sophomore albums: "Camp Rock" star Demi Lovato follows up last year's "Don't Forget" with the brassy "Here We Go Again," and 2007 "Idol" winner Jordin Sparks stakes her claim with "Battlefield."

So, which one will become the summer jam record, perfect for blasting at slumber parties and Forever 21 sales? The good news for the artists is that the world of teen pop is a magnanimous one. Fans are encouraged to listen to all the competitors; nary a beef is in sight.

Sparks might be the "Idol" alumna, but it's Lovato who's most influenced by Kelly Clarkson's style. Even the title of Lovato's '80s-inspired "Remember December" could be taken as a vote for Clarkson's maligned full-length "My December."

On the title track, Lovato tells a guy where to stick it over buff guitar lines, a la "Since U Been Gone," Clarkson's gold standard in kiss-off rock. For the bulk of the album, Lovato channels a witty, pouty ingenue in high heels who's not afraid to call the shots, especially after a good cry.

When she breaks from her "Sex and the City" act for Mouse-loving millennials, the 16-year-old shows refreshing versatility. On "Falling Over Me," her vocals balance delicacy and force. The lifting of a phrase from Cyndi Lauper's "Time After Time" is a nice touch, a signal that Lovato is reverent of all the chart-toppers who have gone before her, even the ones with the Technicolor tresses that would surely violate a Disney contract.

Though her album is not as consistent as "Here We Go Again," it might be Sparks who will generate more hits from "Battlefield," which was written in four months, unlike her rushed self-titled debut. The 19-year-old doesn't have the kind of actorly chops that Lovato uses to embody character, but Sparks does have the pipes -- earthy, full and transcendent.

"Battlefield" is a bid for recognition as an adult with her own mind, and it offers some positive signs. The title track, cooked up in part by OneRepublic's Ryan Tedder, ends with an exhilarating, if bombastic, call to "get your armor." "Watch You Go" is one of the best offerings on the album, an impeccable collaboration with T-Pain and Dr. Luke that shows Sparks' natural proclivities toward lovelorn R&B.

But the album lags in its second half with songs that feel half-baked and are not aided by clever production. Many were penned by Sparks, whose writing abilities are far from hopeless; they simply need more development.

It turns out that forging her independence is also a battlefield -- as much with herself as with anyone else.

-- Margaret Wappler

The Friedbergers' peak moments

The Fiery Furnaces

"I'm Going Away"

Thrill Jockey

*** 1/2

In a career full of stylistic zigzags and more music than most bands produce in two decades, the Fiery Furnaces are at it again. "I'm Going Away" is the duo's eighth album since 2003, and for those who love its way with a pop song, this is bound to be considered a peak moment.

Veering away from some of the more experimental textures that marbled past efforts, the new album is a string of linear melodies tarted up with the occasional instrumental flourish (a jazz-fusion drum fill here, a distorted keyboard solo there). The relatively concise songs have just a bit more breathing room, and it makes all the difference.

Eleanor Friedberger is still packing the words into her tales of romantic intrigue, but she makes it all sound off-the-cuff. Her brother, Matthew, keeps the hooks coming on keyboards and guitar, until the ghosts of such '70s pop maestros as Todd Rundgren and Wings-era Paul McCartney shimmer through the arrangements.

-- Greg Kot

Happy-go-lucky comeback vibe

Sugar Ray

"Music for Cougars"


** 1/2

It's anyone's guess why this L.A. pop-rock act -- a huge commercial draw in the late '90s but one that hasn't released a new studio disc since 2003's comparatively soft-selling "In the Pursuit of Leisure" -- chose this moment of worldwide economic instability to stage a comeback: With a long line of barely distinguishable hits such as "Fly," "Someday" and "Every Morning," Sugar Ray soundtracked the boom-times brio of the pre-9/11 era more enthusiastically than anybody else.

In their original incarnation, these guys made Smash Mouth look like prophets of doom.

Not surprisingly, the last few years haven't done much to dampen Sugar Ray's spirit. On the dreadfully (if quite frankly) titled "Music for Cougars," singer Mark McGrath and his bandmates still sport the party-hearty attitude of freshly minted dot-com millionaires in a dozen uptempo tunes about rainbows, boardwalks and how she's got the woo-hoo (whatever that means).

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