Britney Spears (Jive)

Grade: C

As titles go, “Circus” isn’t quite as timely as “Blackout” in the ongoing Britney Spears saga.

When the latter album hit, about this time last year, Britney Spears was in free fall, turning up chubby and clumsy on the MTV Video Music Awards, losing custody of her kids to K-Fed, running over photographers with her car, being institutionalized.

Now, she is celebrating her 27th birthday with a new album, a recent armful of VMAs and a chart-topping single, “Womanizer,” her first since “Baby, One More Time.” A well-adjusted Britney? It’s no circus.

The good news is that “Circus” is a more fully realized album than “Blackout,” melding the singer’s original pop influences with her penchant for dance-floor grooves. If you need more than a beat, you can occasionally find it.

“Womanizer,” with its sexy swagger and burrow-into-your-brain one-note chorus, is basically an adult update of her teen-pop tease act. Above the frisky beat, her voice is enmeshed in a wash of background sounds: the hint of sirens, droning keyboards and background singers.

The singing? It’s still one-dimensional, although when framed in such busy arrangements, it’s not bothersome. In the best songs, the voice is only one tiny ingredient in a larger concoction, not the focus.

Mostly, the focus is fun, even when the singer takes a predictable shot at the paparazzi on “Kill the Lights.” The presence of ominous trombones lends an almost B-movie element to the song, which also uses strings to create a mood of disoriented chaos.

The production is impressive enough that it also masks the flimsiness of many songs. The worst moments are the ones with the least going on: “My Baby,” the singer’s saccharine ode to her sons, puts the tremulous Spears voice in the spotlight alone. Never a good idea.

On “Circus,” as in real life, Spears is more entertaining with a side show around her.

— Jim Abbott, Orlando Sentinel

‘Cinco diablo’

Saliva (Island Records)

Grade: C+

The first words you hear on Saliva’s new album are “Ladies and gentlemen” — an obvious link to the band’s last CD, “Blood Stained Love Story,” which spawned the hit “Ladies and Gentlemen.” And after the band reintroduces itself, “Cinco Diablo” pretty much does pick up right where the last effort ended.

“Cinco Diablo” (shouldn’t it be “Cinco Diablos”?) is a typically solid Saliva CD, though, made up of mostly well-written hard rock songs that thankfully never give in to wimpiness, even on the ballads. There’s a clunker or two, and very few surprises, but at least it keeps its edge sharp.

The Southern rockers’ predilection for gunplay onomotapaeia (remember “Click, Click, Boom”?) is even on display again: “Bang bang bang” goes the chorus in “Judgment Day.”

Highlights include the aforementioned “Judgment Day,” which gives a steely-eyed soldier’s view of war: “Bang bang bang, another body goes down in flames, another preacher will say his name, another coffin will bear his remains.”

“How Could You?” has the right tone for a not-too-delicate kiss-off song. Heartbreak gives way to aggression in the next song, “Hunt You Down,” with its chunky riffs.

“Forever and a Day” is a pleasant love song that could be country-rock in another band’s hands.

Most promising is the multitextured “I’m Coming Back,” which opens with singer Josey Scot whispering “are you ready?” in an ominous tone before exploding into a rap-rock jackhammer.

— Guy D’Astolfo, The Vindicator


Akon (Universal)

Grade: C

Akon sneaks up you, doesn’t he? Since 2004, while much of the hip-hop universe witnessed sales plummet and elaborate productions grow duller, the Senegalese hop-popper with the mournful, lilting voice was busy being locked up and smacking that and making big money. The key to Akon’s success is an economic sonic style and a lyrical palette that keeps it simple.

Richer, denser and more ruminative than Akon’s usual tinny production, “Freedom” isn’t exactly baroque. But it is broader in tone, churchier and clubbier, even. While the title tune comes across as somewhat heavy-handed (African marching drums and moody melody to make Peter Gabriel blanch), much of Akon’s remaining efforts are sprightly and discoesque.

If “We Don’t Care” doesn’t make you yearn for further Donna Summer-Giorgio Moroder collaboration, the elated house-music grandeur of “Keep You Much Longer” will send you to the nearest dance floor. Corny as that sounds, Akon manages to make club-pop with a vocal and melodic dexterity as ferocious as its rhythms. Still, there’s little here as potent as the clipped, flippant hip-hop kick of “I’m So Paid,” with Akon’s patented moan set against the leering raps of Young Jeezy and Lil Wayne.

— A.D. Amorosi, Philadelphia Inquirer

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