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RECORD RACK

Robbie Williams' 'Reality Killed the Video Star'; Bon Jovi's 'The Circle'; Wyclef Jean's 'From the Hut, to the Projects, to the Mansion'

November 10, 2009|Ann Powers; Mikael Wood; Jeff Weiss

Robbie Williams

"Reality Killed the Video Star"

Virgin Records

* * *

"This is a song full of metaphors," Robbie Williams sneers over some dusted-off mid-1970s guitar crunch in the party anthem "Do You Mind," which comes right in the middle of this bullishly diverse album. What song isn't? Dwelling on the obvious is an easy pop star move, but the witty Mr. Williams is usually sharper than that.

Perhaps he's decided that being obvious is his only hope. The attitudinal crooner and former boy band star remains a novelty stateside, though in England he's basically Justin Timberlake minus the grace. Williams' eighth studio effort is a full-body flex matching buttery ballads with laser-flecked dance tracks and arch updates from the music hall.

It's meant to both resurrect his flagging career at home and to finally capture America, now that younger stars like Katy Perry have made Williams' brand of power camp acceptable here.

To that end, "Reality" is all about metaphors, puns and other brilliant turns of phrase, from the title that nods to the old Buggles hit by its producer, Trevor Horn, to the rapper-like rhymes ("it's not a blast for me, it's blasphemy") and non sequiturs ("the hairdo of the godhead") scattered throughout its meditations of fame, age and noncommittal romance. Whether upbeat and sci-fi mystical or orchestrated and jaded, these songs showcase the nasally soulful Williams as an irresistibly smart, cosmopolitan manchild of the overly wired world.

He's always written about fame's fun and peril, but with "Reality," Williams focuses hard on the out-of-body experience of the everyday. "I've got no problem with the physical minimal real life," he croons, slightly Auto-tuned, in the Pet Shop Boys homage "Starstruck." But that's a lie.

Reclaiming Williams' spot in the line of self-skewering Brit wits that runs from Noel Coward to Ricky Gervais, "Reality" covers much musical ground while sticking to its main point: that for both the celebrity and the average bloke on date night, life is one big show full of flubbed lines and fumbled choreography.

Horn's production is gorgeous, and Williams benefits greatly from the gifts of the producer's longtime team, including the arranger Anne Dudley. "Reality" unfolds with deliberate variety -- its calculated pleasures won't appeal to those seeking earnest emotion or even slightly ragged sounds.

Like the verbal tricks he loves to employ, the appeal of Robbie Williams might still be too tricky to be truly universal. But this album proves that he is a great brain teaser.

-- Ann Powers

--

Going back to the dungarees

Bon Jovi

"The Circle"

Island

* 1/2

"Who's gonna work for the working man?" wonders Jon Bon Jovi on the new album by the long-running outfit that bears his name. Well, Bon Jovi is up to the job: On "The Circle" this band of Jersey boys makes a recession-appropriate return (after forays into pop and country) to its blue-collar arena-rock style. "Work for the Working Man" even recycles the pumping groove from the band's 1986 smash "Livin' on a Prayer," and lifts the factory-floor sound effects from Billy Joel's "Allentown."

Produced by Top 40 staple John Shanks, "The Circle" shows off Bon Jovi's still-sharp knack for wedding blandly optimistic sentiments to predictably soaring choruses. Unfortunately, it's hard to tell one song from the next: First the singer's telling us "We Weren't Born to Follow," then he's remembering "When We Were Beautiful"; later, he reveals that "Love Is the Only Rule."

After all that sloganeering, "Fast Cars" appears to promise something refreshing, maybe even Ramones-like. Alas, no dice: "We are fast cars on the inside," Bon Jovi proclaims. "There's no turning back on the highway of life."

-- Mikael Wood

--

A hungrier Wyclef Jean

Wyclef Jean

"From the Hut, to the Projects, to the Mansion"

Carnival House/Megaforce/Sony Music

* * *

During the second track of his latest album, Wyclef Jean relates the tale of a fan mistaking him for Black Eyed Peas frontman will.i.am. It's an interesting illustration of how far below the radar the former Fugees frontman has fallen since he, Pras and Lauryn Hill topped the charts in the '90s.

The Haitian-born Jean has stayed busy, producing and penning tunes for the likes of John Legend and Shakira. But as Jean declares on "The Streets Pronounce Me Dead," hip-hop heads were chagrined about his career: "Last time, [they] felt me was when I rhymed with Big Pun."

Partnering with DJ Drama, Jean is determined to change that. He introduces his Toussaint St. Jean alter-ego, inspired by Haitian liberator Toussaint L'Ouverture. The fictional guise coupled with furor at his also-ran status has injected a hunger in Jean. Childhood anecdotes about receiving his first pair of shoes and the crushing poverty in Haiti ("Warrior's Anthem") provide a poignancy he'd long lacked. "Toussaint Vs. Bishop" and "Letter From the Penn" triumph on his sincerity.

The collection is not without missteps: "Slumdog Millionaire" enlists Cyndi Lauper for hook duty and lets her construct her own hood mythology. Overall, "From the Hut, to the Projects" makes for a successful resurrection.

-- Jeff Weiss

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