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By GINA VIVINETTO, ROBERT FRIEDMAN and PAMELA DAVIS

© St. Petersburg Times, published February 11, 2001


JENNIFER LOPEZ, J.LO (EPIC) I really wanted this album to stink so I could use the great lead I came up with: "J.Lo needs to lay low."

Clever, no?

On second thought, maybe it's a good thing J.Lo doesn't stink. Yes, folks, Hollywood actor Jennifer Lopez's second foray into the pop music world is an enjoyable, if not benign, batch of FM-ready jams. J.Lo's attitude? Sassy. Lopez's voice? Well, it's not Selena's, the late Latin star Lopez portrayed on film, but it isn't half bad, especially after some studio wizardry. Put it this way: Lopez is a far better singer than Madonna is an actor. (Come to think of it, Lopez sings as well as Madonna.)

That's a perfect reference, because much of J.Lo rips off Madonna. There's Play, the nod to Music, in which Lopez begs the neighborhood DJ to play her favorite song. It's an ode to the sheer power of music, the need to dance, the visceral command a good beat can have on you, body, bootie and soul.

Lopez offers the sappy bilingual ballad, like Madonna's La Isla Bonita. She also uses -- sparingly, thank goodness -- that vocoder thingamajig that Madonna and Cher got everyone excited about.

Love Don't Cost a Thing, J.Lo's first hit, is super-catchy. You can't beat the sentiment, either. Hearing Lopez tell her beau that she wouldn't care if he were broke is refreshing in this era of the urban idolization of phat wallets, couture and cars. (Maybe poor Lopez wore that revealing dress to last year's Grammy Awards show because she couldn't afford more material. You think?)

Give Lopez a pat on the back for having a hand in some songwriting. No, she's not Dylan, but at least Lopez knows how to use "ironic" correctly in a sentence, which is more than we can say for Alanis Morissette.

J.Lo has its glitches: some filler, those cringe-worthy ballads. But I think stodgy critics slam it because we're suspicious of multitalent. (Plus, we're afraid to dance.) Look at the sales of her debut, On the 6. Five-million Lopez fans can't be wrong. Can they? Grade: B-

-- GINA VIVINETTO, Times pop music critic

* * *

SOUTHERN CULTURE ON THE SKIDS, LIQUORED UP AND LACQUERED DOWN (TVT RECORDS) Don't let the name fool you. Southern Culture on the Skids (SCOTS to their friends) isn't some novelty act or a bunch of condescending faux-redneck slummers. What it is is America's pre-eminent party band, combining an authentic Dixie Zeitgeist with a swampy, campy groove that digs deeper as the night grinds on. Think Creedence with a sense of humor. Think the B-52s with depth and chops.

Liquored Up and Lacquered Down isn't SCOTS' finest effort. Only about two-thirds of it is perfect, compared with 100 percent of 1995's Dirt Track Date. The brief forays into traditional country and Tex-Mex are well-intended but only so-so.

But the band can still kick in on command. Front man Rick Miller starts baying at the moon while he drags his guitar kicking and screaming through an inexhaustible array of blues, surf, rockabilly and chicken-scratch licks. Drummer Dave Hartman pounds away in the pocket like the late, great Al Jackson Jr. on some lost Stax masterwork. Mary Huff -- the only band member who doesn't look like a Deliverance extra -- provides a thumping bass, a heavenly voice and sex appeal.

Songs such as I Learned to Dance in Mississippi and Pass the Hatchet tap into some primordial rhythm that is harder to turn off than a creatine-addled schoolboy on prom night. And what other band would build a great song (Haw River Stomp) around a Fritos/mosquitoes rhyme scheme?

My only quibble: Why doesn't Huff rate more lead vocals? Take a listen to Just How Lonely or SCOTS' old cover of Nitty Gritty, and you'll ask the same musical question.

But nobody will be able to hear you over all the racket. GRADE: B+

-- ROBERT FRIEDMAN, Times staff writer

* * *

O-TOWN, O-TOWN (J RECORDS) -- It's not a crime to like catchy pop tunes, even if you're old enough to buy liquor.

All you music snobs out there (if you have a Beck CD, you may be one) need to realize there's no shame in adults popping 'N Sync into the CD player and turning up the volume. But that's where it should end.

If you find anyone over 17 wearing T-shirts, reading magazines, or using key chains and stickers with Justin Timberlake's likeness on them, well that's just wrong.

All of which leads us to the self-titled CD from one of the newest boy bands on the market: O-Town. The "O" stands for Orlando, the magical land where puppet master Lou Pearlman creates pop groups with his bare hands.

The five guys who make up O-Town were plucked from obscurity (as is the rule) and turned into singer/dancer/heartthrobs by Pearlman's people. The result isn't as bad as one might think. Manufactured and slick, yes, but complete garbage, no.

O-Town offers smoothly produced, written-by-numbers songs sure to satisfy any Backstreet Boys fan. If you can get past all the name dropping in many of the songs (Madonna, Janet Jackson, Victoria's Secret and Soul Train, to name a few), there are some likable tunes on this disc.

Love Should Be a Crime has an Oasis-like quality and a rougher edge than some of the more lighthearted sexually themed songs. Liquid Dreams, the first single, is a mix of tight group vocals atop synthesizers and other electronic gadgets. Frankly, it couldn't be more danceable.

Unlike other groups -- specifically 'N Sync and 98 Degrees -- the O-Town guys eschew the curlicue note-holding and just belt it out.

For viewers of Making the Band, the ABC reality TV show that followed the path the guys blazed to becoming O-Town, All for Love and Baby I Would (which were sung over and over and over again on the program) have been stuck at the end of the CD. Avoid them if you can. Grade: B

-- PAMELA DAVIS, Times Staff Writer

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