Monday, May 6, 2013

Review: 98 Degrees all grown up on reunion album '2.0'


Looking mighty slick and all grown up in their Italian-style suits, the cover of 98 Degrees’ reunion album, “2.0,” seems to be telling us this is not the hormonal boy band we last heard from more than a decade ago.
It’s a more sophisticated look for 98 Degrees than the muscle-bound T-shirts and flaming album covers of their previous two multi-platinum studio albums (“98 Degrees and Rising” and “Revelation”) dating to 1998.
Teen angst may be gone, but now we get 30-something hormones raging. 98 Degrees – Nick and Drew Lachey, Justin Jeffre and Jeff Timmons – give us an album full of songs pining for sexy ladies, the joys of seduction, searching for that special one, yearning for lost love and regretting relationships botched by male immaturity. Call it a boy band sound rebooted for young adults.
That means “R”-rated songs are OK, and the 11 new tunes are sexy, risqué and often quite suggestive, even explicit, such as on the opening track “Microphone” with its double entendre.
Many of the tunes play as an homage to, or celebration of, the ladies, but we’re not exactly talking deep musings on the feminine mystique. It’s more like the lyrics on the impossibly catchy “Girls Night Out,” where the guys sing, “So many women looking good in the place right now/Each one sexy, I want to love ’em all.”
Vocally the quartet has picked up right where it left off on the last studio album in 2000. And that’s a good thing. Their sound remains refreshing and authentic with rich harmonies and heartfelt solos. It seems the group’s hiatus worked to recharge their singing. The vocals feel more confident, mature and pristine. For example, the first single, the hooky “Microphone,” pops out of the radio speakers sounding fresh in a pop music world that can still feel just as pre-fab as it did in the late ’90s.
98 Degrees selected songs from mostly little-known, up-and-coming writers. But there are a couple from contemporary soul/R&B stars. The Bruno Mars tune, “Take the Long Way Home,” is 98 Degrees at its sensual ballad best, with vocal tricks as sharp as ever. (Mars also does guitar work on the track.) Prolific R&B songwriter Ne-Yo contributes “Lonely,” another exquisite lost love ballad.
98 Degrees members have said they were looking to capture a more contemporary soul sound influenced by the current crop of R&B hit makers like Mars, Ne-Yo, Usher and Chris Brown. They do that with mixed success.
What still shines with these guys is what got them to the dance in the first place: wonderfully pure vocal work with elegant harmonies.
Even when 98 Degrees broke in the late ’90s, following the decade’s boy band craze pioneered by the Backstreet Boys and *NSYNC, they always seemed to sound the most genuine. Clearly the Lacheys and Jeffre learned their performance skills well at the School for Creative and Performing Arts. And it didn’t hurt that Nick and Justin cut their teeth in a real band (compared to the Mickey Mouse Club), performing for a while in Cincinnati doo wop/oldies group the Avenues, before splitting to Los Angeles to be “discovered.”
While many boy bands had a calculated feel, with exotic stage shows and over-the-top choreography, 98 Degrees seemed to do it just by singing. That’s still the case. While “2.0” is often a slickly produced album, it works best when the undistorted, pure harmonies take center stage.
It’s unclear if the 98 Degrees reunion will last past this album and big summer tour. But for past fans of the “boys,” and those who appreciate first-rate pop vocal performances, this is a reunion worth the wait. ⬛