Bland street 'boys'

American vocal group Backstreet Boys performing in concert, held at Suntec Convention Hall on 28 February 2010.

UNITED STATES - The Backstreet Boys are having a mid-life crisis. And it makes for very awkward listening.

The boys - yes, yes, technically all men now, one's even over 40 - have, in their last few albums, struggled with their identity as a group.

Their latest, In a World Like This, is their first album since oldest member Kevin Richardson, 41, returned to the group. He left in 2006 to pursue acting.

In the interim, members Nick Carter, Howie Dorough, AJ McLean and Brian Littrell soldiered on as a quartet.

But it was with Richardson that they made their last greatest hit, 2005's Incomplete, which was from their last truly blockbuster album, Never Gone.

That album sold over 10 million copies worldwide, while Unbreakable (2007) and This Is Us (2009) have contributed only a tiny fraction of the group's 130 million records sold throughout their career.

Unbreakable seemed an attempt to photocopy Never Gone, while This Is Us had the group trying to ride the electronic dance music wave to disastrous, embarrassing effect.

Can this new record fare better? It doesn't seem likely. Reviews are unanimous in saying it's bland.

What's gone wrong? When I first became a Backstreet Boys fan 17 years ago, it wasn't the out-and-out pop songs - some cheesy, some great - that I was into.

It was the boys' particular melding of pop and R&B that got me hooked.

Some of my favourites are songs that never became singles, for example Just To Be Close To You from their 1996 debut, and their take on early 90s R&B group P.M. Dawn's Set Adrift On Memory Bliss for 1997's Backstreet's Back.

That album in particular - with songs like All I Have To Give and 10,000 Promises - seemed to confirm the boys as the music industry's next great vocal group.

When the group was formed by serial boy band manager - and unfortunately, alleged molester - Lou Pearlman in 1993, they were a bunch of young guys who idolised Boyz II Men and gospel music group Take 6.

OLD SCHOOL

While Pearlman's other group, N'Sync, were the feisty young upstarts, Backstreet Boys tended to be more old school. Sure, they danced, but everything took a back seat to good old-fashioned romantic harmonies.

That's part of the reason they're still around, years after their contemporaries in the late 90s have gone their separate ways.

Like Westlife, they've never had a problem getting on the charts with mid-tempo pop songs. Think As Long As You Love Me, I Want It That Way. It's a formula that can technically work forever because there's nothing quite as everlasting as the innocuous mid-tempo pop song with a soaring chorus.

As time went on, they attempted to switch things up. On This Is Us, they put on the persona of cool 30-something guys who loved to club.

But that failed to connect with fans and new listeners, and it has led them to go running back to the safe, warm arms of the middling pop tune.

Last year, while discussing the album at a gig in Vietnam, McLean said: "We just want to go back to what we're really known for and what we are good at, which is pop R&B, great harmonies, great vocals."

None of that has materialised here, and I don't think I - or any other long-time fan - could bear another album that wastes their vocals.

Backstreet's back, sure, but it's definitely not all right.


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