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New Kids on the Block

Step By Step  Hear it Now

RS: 2of 5 Stars Average User Rating: 4of 5 Stars

1990

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Two summers ago, black songwriter-producer-manager Maurice Starr's young hit-making protégés in New Edition bowed out of the radio-bubblegum sweepstakes while former member Bobby Brown began tightening his choke hold on the airwaves with "My Prerogative," a grumpy and undeniably adult dance hit. But that season saw no dearth of teen ballads – Starr's next project, five white Boston homies he named New Kids on the Block, battled it out on the pop charts with the baby R&Bers the Boys, whose "Dial My Heart" matched the New Kids' "Please Don't Go Girl" for falsetto soul and warm-weather tempo. For a while, it was easy to confuse the two groups, until the New Kids began dispatching hit after hit and exhibiting a marked unwillingness to go away.

Eventually, the New Kids themselves stepped forward and claimed that, yes, they owed more to the Temptations than to their fellow Beantowners in Aerosmith, and no, Starr wasn't any kind of sinister puppet master. And by the way, they added, who says Nineties teen idols can't show independence, maturity and wide appeal? – as they assured us they would demonstrate on their next album. All this before "Step by Step," the first single from the album, made its MTV debut.

Step by Step does sport a feistier version of the Kids, even while it largely sticks to their set musical formula and entirely to their chosen image. Donnie Wahlberg, Jon Knight, Joe McIntyre, Danny Wood and Jordan Knight each get turns singing lead, thanks to the group's determination to present itself as a unit and the commercial demands of its crucial live shows; more than one fan would leave Kids concerts brokenhearted if her favorite wasn't given equal time at the mike. On record, the boys' voices are indistinguishable – only Jordan Knight's fine falsetto stands out. Knight takes the vocals on the title tune, a peppy reintroduction to the group that breaks up its generalized pledges of devotion with quick spots from each member, one-liners coyly called "ad libs" on the lyric sheet, although they're faithfully printed. (Nothing but nothing on this record happens by chance.)

Starr's lyrics for the New Kids promiscuously invoke the marvelously unspecific noun girl, leaving the slate blank for every stripe of projection fantasy. "Tonight," a paean to live concerts designed to be played at top volume while the curling iron gets passed around, pays bizarre tribute to "all the people and girls," reminisces on the New Kids oeuvre and jerks out of its honeyed nostalgia into horn-heavy Sgt. Pepper stateliness as the boys chant, "Tonight! Tonight!" While the song is both baffling and a break with style, it isn't a horror on the scale of Donnie Wahlberg's reading of "Stay With Me Baby," a fake-reggae number. Apparently, Wahlberg's hometown of Dorchester, Massachusetts, is heavily Jamaican, which explains his serviceable accent but does not excuse this pug-nosed white kid intoning, "Me could never doubt you," and laughing like the Un-Cola man, then sending this atrocity out with the repeated untruth "We be jamming."

Wahlberg is also the New Kid most insistent on talking back to the rock press, perhaps because the question of his own maturity will soon be on the line with a solo album. In answer to the nay-sayers, he and Starr co-wrote "Games," a tough, danceable tune that may not change any minds but does pack enough punch in its closing rap to verify the group's considerable dedication to black music. The Kids' genuine affection for traditional black forms like soulful ballads and uptempo R&B is their ace in the hole. On Step by Step, lush melodies outnumber the bland slow dances that typified the group's album Hangin' Tough. The swooping "Let's Try It Again" pitches deep-toned Danny Wood against Jordan Knight's high harmonies, and "Funny Feeling" is full of pinging synth sounds and unreal falsettos. Starr, co-writing with Michael Jonzun, has also concocted a doo-wop number for the boys called "Happy Birthday." This song demonstrates Starr's real genius – writing can't-lose lyrics for every occasion, in this case the wonderfully waffling "You're so special in every way." Equally to the point, the song displays his commercial acumen. "Happy Birthday" will be pledged from one best friend to another on every dedication show on radio, despite the fact that the New Kids' voices are far from ready to blend and swing in street-corner style.

Have the New Kids come into their own? Probably, although they didn't have far to go. The Kids weren't as immature in the first place as their critics thought, and they're not as mature as they think they are now. But no twelve-year-old girl cares. A fan's devotion – vague, total, tantalized – is made more delicious by the you-and-me-against-the-world stance that the New Kids now routinely adopt, whether challenged or not. Rock fans who find no value in the group's light rap and radio-ready R&B may foresee the death of "real music" via such handpicked purveyors of product. But teenagers know the deeper truth: Everyone looks cuter behind a mike. (RS 584)


ARION BERGER





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