J Records, 2001
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Reviewed by Sienna Powers
It's tough to imagine a new group whose first album was more eagerly awaited. Was, in fact, more poised to jump straight up the charts before the discs had even cooled. O-Town owes this early success, not to mention just about everything else, to the wonders of multimedia, the world's current fascination with reality TV and pop impresario Lou Pearlman, though not necessarily in that order.
It was, after all, the perfect, can't-miss plan. Pearlman, the man behind 'N Sync and The Backstreet Boys, put out a US-wide call for young men of talent and pleasing visage to come forth and try out for one spot of five in a boy band that would be created on prime time television. The show was to be called Making the Band, the network: ABC.
Come they did: 1800 wannabes sent tapes and otherwise strutted their stuff for Pearlman and his underlings. And we watched while that 1800, in open auditions, was whittled down to eight finalists. One of the five finally chosen, Ikaika Kahoana, bailed before things got really interesting and was replaced by Dan Miller. Interestingly, Miller wasn't one of the final eight, but rather was one of the 25 semifinalists seen on the first show.
The season depicted the whole process, beginning with the open auditions, to the eight finalists, to the five ultimately selected band members to the inking of a record deal in the final episode. And, when you pause to think, the success factor for the project was pretty high going in. Backstreet Boys, LFO, Take 5, 'NSync and Innosense have all come from Lou Pearlman's Orlando, Florida-based Trans Continental Companies. If anyone understands how to manufacture a successful boy band, it's Lou Pearlman. He's done it often and he's done it well. All that was left was to do it for the camera.
The final piece came together in the final episode when O-Town inked a deal with J Records, becoming the first act signed by legendary producer Clive Davis' new company.
Considering O-Town's made-for-tv heritage, it's surprising that the group's self-titled debut album isn't terrible, but it's not. No, really. The voices of the chosen five -- Ashley Parker Angel, Erik-Michael Estrada, Dan Miller, Trevor Penick and Jacob Underwood -- work well together and they've been given material that compliments their vocal abilities. More important -- to me, anyway -- is the fact that the album is not as repetitive as it could be. Sure, there are lots of the chest-thumping, heart wrenching harmonies of the sort that has smoothed 'NSync and Backstreet Boys into the top 40. Again. And again. But there is also enough variation on this theme to add a bit of texture to this first attempt. "Sexiest Woman Alive" includes some nice Motown-influenced elements and, overall, exudes a 70s funk sound. Meanwhile, "Love Should Be A Crime" feels like post-Oasis retro rock; a nice change of pace from boy band central. Most of the album, however, features material designed to maximize the impact of harmonies sung by young men with earnest faces gazing soulfully into a lens.
There are a couple of odd things about O-Town -- the album, not the group. For one, even on close inspection, nowhere on the liner notes does it say: "O-Town is..." with the full names of the five members. Everyone gets last names -- production staff, logo designers, stylists, everyone, it seems, except the talent. There might be some perfectly good reason for this, but it still struck me as kind of odd.
The faces of O-Town are everywhere, of course. And their first names. In fact, one side of the five-paneled liner notes -- one panel for each letter in "O-Town" as well as each member of the group -- is taken up with photos of the guys, along with their first name and a brief message from each individual. So here's another odd part: the notes from each O-Town'er all contain a distinctly Christian message in five point type.
So, on the one hand, you have Dan thanking "God because without his immense blessings & guidance I would have easily lost focus." Or Jacob who says "my savior Jesus Christ, thank you for the creation of music, without the both of you I'd be lost."
And, on the other hand, you have these five young men singing songs with titles like "Liquid Dreams" and "Every Six Seconds" and much of their music is ripe with some sort of sexual innuendo, like this from the vaguely Country-sounding "All Or Nothing:"
I've had the rest of you, now I want the best of you
It just seems... well... weird. Is it a ploy? A plot? Or some sort of boy band Christian recruiting cult? The possibilities of that seem somewhat frightening.
In the final analysis, O-Town is not as terrible as anticipated. In fact, some of it is rather good and, since all of it is radio length, expect to hear more than one cut in heavy rotation at all times for the next year or so. | February 2001
Sienna Powers is a writer, editor and visual artist.
It was, after all, the perfect, can't miss plan. Pearlman, the man behind 'N Sync and The Backstreet Boys, put out a US-wide call for young men of talent and pleasing visage to come forth and try out for one spot of five in a boy band that would be created on prime time television.