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Music

Aguilera takes out the trash

On Back to Basics, the pop star replaces her smutty porn star persona with a classy, sexy version. Oh, and can she sing.

By SEAN DALY
Published August 19, 2006


A few years ago, Christina Aguilera had little use for clothing. She was Beautiful, as her self-loving anthem affirmed, but she was also downright Dirrty, those two r's informing us that she'd rather be known for her porniness than her vocal power. A former Mouseketeer, Aguilera bragged about her below-the-belt body piercings and even promoted a randy new nickname: Xtina. Her Britney Gone Bad persona helped her sell 9-million copies worldwide of 2002's sophomore effort Stripped.

Lesson learned: Big skank leads to big bank.

But a funny thing happened on the way to the gutter. In November 2005, the 25-year-old married music exec Jordan Bratman. And although matrimony didn't lead the singer all the way back to her original persona - the shiny teeny-popper chirping 1999's What A Girl Wants - at least she has stopped wearing thongs as formalwear.

Even more noteworthy: On her new album, Back to Basics, an inspired double-disc effort that kicks off the fall music season in grand fashion, Aguilera realizes she doesn't need saucy spelling tricks to be sexy. Her hot, octave-spanning holler does the job just fine, a melismatic gift with both a smoldering lower register and a breathtaking high-wire act. She's never sounded or looked so good, and she knows it.

RCA pumped gobs of money into Back to Basics, a hip history lesson that honors jazz, soul and R&B singers from the last 80 years, but rarely loses radio-ready sheen. From the glossy liner-note pictures of Aguilera vamping in vintage pinup poses to the slick production heard throughout, everything about her third album is first class.

Sure, at two discs and 22 songs, she could have used an editor. And Aguilera, co-writer and executive producer, still suffers from a shoulder chip that inspires too many vainglorious diary entries. Still, the ambitious Back to Basics is well worthwhile, if only to hear Aguilera in the wildest, weirdest pop showcase since OutKast's 2003 Speakerboxxx/The Love Below.

Disc 1, produced by such beat-friendly soundscapers as Gang Starr's DJ Premier, is the more radio-ready of the two halves, with its tracks blending modern beats and dusty found sounds. First single Ain't No Other Man is a club-scorching marvel of dance-club breathlessness and brassy blasts, as Aguilera quick-lips a checklist of her husband's greatest traits ("You got soul, you got class, you got style, you're bada--"). After hitting and holding (and holding) a killer note, she even chuckles at her powers. That's cocky, but it's also darn cool.

Makes Me Wanna Pray is a steamy slice of gospel funk, featuring Steve Winwood on Hammond B-3 organ, a feisty choir swaying and praying, and Aguilera testifying to the greater good of clean living. Built on a scratchy sample of Allen Toussaint and Betty Harris' Nearer to You, the mid tempo Understand is a great R&B jam. And Slow Down Baby, which samples both Gladys Knight and G-Unit rapper Tony Yayo, is the very essence of Aguilera: old school, new school and big vocal belting.

It's no coincidence that Disc 1 runs out of steam when the singer starts navel-gazing, especially on the cloying fan appreciation Thank You. Even worse, on the feud cut F.U.S.S., she takes an aimless shot at Stripped producer Scott Storch. When she really grows up, she'll regret mucking up such a strong album with that dud.

But don't lose hope: White-hot collaborator Linda Perry wrote and produced great chunks of the deliciously bizarro Disc 2, which opens with carnival-creepy orchestration that sounds like Danny Elfman soundtracking Cabaret. It gets even weirder, as Andrews Sisters-style swing and blues club come-ons are injected with modern notions of sex and silliness. Younger listeners might be put off by the throwback vibe, but older fans will get a kick out of it.

The show-stopping Candyman is an R-rated redux of Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy ("He's a one-stop shop, makes my panties drop") in which the horns squawk and a USO band catcalls as Aguilera does a nifty job of singing both the lead vocal and the girl-group backing part. Nasty Naughty Boy is a winking burlesque burner in which Aguilera purrs all over the mike - "I got you breakin' into a sweat, got you hot bothered and wet" - as a fleet of vavoomy striptease horns wail away. And the slinky I Got Trouble is made to sound like a rare unearthed blues tune, a scratchy, muffled gem filthy with the soil of the crossroads.

Disc 2 eventually gets pulled back into Christina's diary, which is filled with so-serious musings about how she needs to be saved. The results can be sweet (Save Me From Myself) or tedious (Hurt). A succession of heated ballads leads up to the album closer, The Right Man, which is so over-the-top with strings and bombast and Meat Loafian grandeur, I'm still not sure if it's genius or pure schlock. Either way, I like it. Even if it's not excellent, it's not Xtina, either.

Sean Daly can be reached at sdaly@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8467. His blog is at www.sptimes.com/blogs/popmusic.

CD REVIEW

Christina Aguilera, Back to Basics RCA GRADE: B+

[Last modified August 18, 2006, 08:08:26]


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