- - Monday, March 28, 2011

Femme Fatale

Britney Spears


Britney Spears may be the oldest 29-year-old on the planet. Since earning a spot on “The Mickey Mouse Club” in 1992, she has lived the musical equivalent of several lifetimes, recklessly careening her way through a career that has been burnt to the ground and resurrected at regular intervals.

“I got nine lives like a kitty cat,” she sings on “Femme Fatale,” her newest album. Miss Spears, you ain’t lying.

“Femme Fatale” follows a period of relative stability for the pop star, who spent the months leading up to her previous record, “Circus,” bouncing between rehab clinics and courtrooms. She struggled with substance abuse, lost custody of her two children and was committed to an L.A. psychiatric ward. Then, with the popularity of “Circus” breathing new life into her career, she began to clean up.

She’s sober on “Femme Fatale,” but that doesn’t mean she’s in control. Miss Spears has always been the product of her handlers, from her micromanaged days as a teen idol to her recent makeover as a club queen, a savvy transformation that owes more to her production team than Miss Spears herself. She’s still the canvas, but producers such as Dr. Luke and Max Martin do most of the painting.

Nevertheless, Miss Spears knows how to sell a pop song. No longer posing as a Southern belle with role-model values, she fills “Femme Fatale” with music that celebrates her hedonistic past, crooning risque lyrics and double entendres over a backdrop of thumping dance-floor beats. There are no ballads here; “Femme Fatale” desperately wants to move your feet, not tug at your heartstrings.

“Hold It Against Me,” originally written for Katy Perry, mixes synthesizers and programmed percussion with a million- dollar chorus. “Criminal” rewrites Madonna’s “Papa Don’t Preach” by focusing on juvenile delinquency instead of teenage pregnancy, with Miss Spears begging her mom not to condemn her felon boyfriend. “Till the World Ends” and “I Wanna Go” are bass-heavy tributes to club culture.

With more than 15 different producers lending their help, “Femme Fatale” is meticulously arranged. Every instrument sounds as though it were fed into a computer and spit back out in robotic form, lending an electronic sheen to the results. For an album that celebrates the dolled-up, indulgent world of after-hours nightclubs, such polished sound couldn’t be more appropriate.

What’s missing is the actual presence of Miss Spears herself. Although she began co-writing her own music with 2003’s “In the Zone,” she doesn’t have a single composing credit on the album. Her vocals, once a distinctive part of the Britney sound, are so heavily AutoTuned that they lose their identity. The liner notes are filled with dozens of names - sound engineers, guest artists and multi-member songwriting teams - but Miss Spears winds up looking like a misplaced guest at her own party.

None of this will keep “Femme Fatale,” which already boasts a pair of top 10 hits, from becoming one of the year’s biggest releases. When the album stumbles, though - which it does quite often - Miss Spears looks more vulnerable than ever, with Lady Gaga and the rest of the YouTube generation threatening to take away her crown.

Belated CD release from Radiohead

“The King of Limbs,” Radiohead’s eighth album, hits stores this week in CD and vinyl formats. Many fans already own a copy, though, given the album’s early release through the band’s own website.

This isn’t Radiohead’s first time subverting industry rules. European retailers traditionally release new albums on a Monday, followed one day later by American outlets. Radiohead’s massive audience has allowed the band to operate independently of those standards.

2007’s “In Rainbows” was issued via an innovative “pay what you can” arrangement, in which fans named their price for a digital download. Such ground-breaking schemes threaten to overshadow the music itself, but “King of Limbs” is still a potent record, with songs that focus on ambience and textured soundscapes rather than anthemic hooks.

Trio pay tribute to a genius

Also hitting stores this week is “Here We Go Again: Celebrating the Genius of Ray Charles,” a lively concert album featuring Willie Nelson, Wynton Marsalis and Norah Jones. Playing to a sold-out audience at Frederick P. Rose Hall, home of jazz at Lincoln Center, the fittingly cross-generic trio showcase the breadth of Charles’ catalog, crooning his country, gospel and blues songs with aptitude and genuine appreciation.

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