"Back to Basics" (RCA Records)
Nowadays, it's typical for a teen pop star to mutate into a pop tart — but no one did more quickly, or more scandalously, than Christina Aguilera.
The former Mouseketeer turned multiplatinum diva caused shockwaves with the release of her second album, 2002's "Stripped" — not because of the album's content, but the image that accompanied it. With tacky extensions, Band-Aid-length skirts, wicked sexual imagery and an overall bad-girl attitude, she mutated into X-tina — a persona so toxic it almost overshadowed her formidable talent.
While she insists she hasn't changed — her new album contains the defiant "Still Dirrty" — Aguilera is no longer shoving it in our faces. On the appropriately titled "Back to Basics," the recently wed Aguilera — the album's executive producer and co-writer — is putting the focus back on her music with an ambitious, double-disc set that pays tribute to her jazzy, bluesy influences.
The first disc, primarily influenced by hip-hop stalwarts like DJ Premier, achieves a retro sound without losing its contemporary edge, infusing samples from R&B's early days with thumping bass lines and alluring grooves. "Ain't No Other Man," the disc's first hyper single, is a showstopper of a tune, but it's certainly not the only one.
"Slow Down Baby," on which Xtina throws cold water on a guy's bedroom dreams, is a sassy, tough-girl jam featuring brassy, funky horn effects; "On Our Way" and "Without You" are also sparkling, stirring tracks that layer Aguilera's gorgeous vocals for an almost angelic effect. And Aguilera, whose powerhouse voice is always technically perfect but sometimes emotionally deficient, has never sounded as vulnerable and tender as she does on the mid-tempo song "Understand."
Though the self-congratulatory closer, "Thank You" (a message to her fans that features them praising her name) is a bit off-putting, the first disc leaves no doubt that Christina, X-tina — whatever she goes by these days — is not only one of music's best singers, but one of its better overall artists.
If only she had stopped there.
Unfortunately, there is a second disc, and it's a big letdown. Paired once again with uber-producer Linda Perry, who wrote Aguilera's Grammy-winning "Beautiful," the pair have difficulty recreating the magic on disc two.
Once again, Aguilera pays homage to her old-school inspirations — except with no musical update. Instead, she attempts to bring the classic sound into today's world by infusing it with a bump-and-grind sexual tone, and it just doesn't work — songs like "Candy Man" and "Nasty Naughty Boy" sound like they're from some tacky Vegas revue. And even when she abandons the boogie-woogie vibe, she still stumbles, as on the overwrought weeper "Hurt."
She does end on an up note with the melancholic "The Right Man." Buoyed by a dramatic string section, Aguilera welcomes her betrothed while saying goodbye to her old demons and insecurities.
In essence, that's what Aguilera has done on "Back to Basics." By exploring the roots of her musical persona, she finally realized she never needed to rely on a caricature to draw attention or express herself — her words and voice speak loudly enough. (Nekesa Mumbi Moody)
There's a line between capitalizing on a breakthrough hit single and exploiting it. Trace Adkins straddles that line when he closes his eighth album with a dance remix of "Honky Tonk Badonkadonk." Pity the fan who picks up Adkins' new "Dangerous Man" believing they're getting the original version of the crossover smash and instead getting a klutzy disco reworking that erases its leering charm.
Tacking the remix onto "Dangerous Man" taps into the album's calculated nature. Repeatedly, the 6-foot 6-inch former offshore oil rigger strains to re-ignite the careening fun of "Badonkadonk" with second-rate rewrites, such as his new single, "Swing," and the goofy hip-shaker "Southern Hallelujah."
On the other hand, the title song finds an effective way for Adkins to rock his drawling baritone — his macho persona works better at celebrating American toughness rather than relying on cute wordplay. Best of all, ballads like "I Came Here to Live" and "Words Get in The Way," with their moral dilemmas and sensitive portrayal of love, prove that Adkins can offer depth and variety beyond novelty dance hits.
Adkins has the nation's attention now; he should use it to show how broad his talent can be rather than act like he's little more than a swaggering party animal. (Michael McCall)