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Radio Disney
Hilary Duff and JoJo keep kiddie corn alive and kicking
BY SEAN RICHARDSON
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A few months ago, Britney Spears scored her first Top 10 hit in four years with "Toxic." It was an overdue commercial and artistic comeback for the embattled megastar, and fans did the only thing that made sense: they cheered. But these days, it seems foolish to long for the return of the Britney the world fell for back in 1999, when her songs were as alluring as her celebrity. Now a shopworn 22, she appears reluctant to consider her music anything more than an afterthought.

Lucky for megapop fans, a new generation of teen stars is ready to pick up where Britney left off ó and not all of them are as conflicted about it as Avril Lavigne is. First and foremost among these is Hilary Duff, the Disney Channel icon whose first proper album, Metamorphosis (Hollywood), has sold a whopping three million copies since its release last year. Right now, the 16-year-old singerís schedule is jam-packed: her new movie, A Cinderella Story, opens this Friday (Mark Bazerís review is in "Trailers," in Film), and sheís performing live from NYC on Good Morning America that same day. This Tuesday, she kicks off a two-month US tour at the Centrum in Worcester. A concert DVD is expected in August, followed by a new album in the fall.

Hilaryís singing career started with a pair of hit soundtracks, 2002ís Lizzie McGuire and 2003ís The Lizzie McGuire Movie, so fans have been looking forward to the July 13 release of the companion album to Cinderella. The first single is a faithful cover of the Go-Gosí "Our Lips Are Sealed" that she performs as a duet with her sister Haylie. Already a TRL favorite, the video finds the girls paying tribute to the original clip by driving around LA in a convertible and frolicking in a water fountain. The sister act continues on the rest of the soundtrack, which features four more songs by Hilary and one more by Haylie.

As you may have guessed, Cinderella is a contemporary take on the fairy tale of the same name, with Hilary in the title role and Chad Michael Murray (Freaky Friday) as Prince Charming. Like Lizzie, itís a pre-teen movie that parents can also enjoy, but it leaves the rest of us with opinions that begin and end with, "Yep, that Hilary sure is a cute kid." Metamorphosis, however, is aimed at a wider audience, one that includes pop-punkers with a soft spot for Avril. And itís fitting that the albumís executive producer, Jay Landers, works in the same capacity for Barbra Streisand, the definitive Actress Who Sings.

Hilary may not be the edgiest entertainer around, but she isnít ready to join Barbra in squaresville just yet. For one thing, her current touring band rock: one of the guitarists, Jason Hook, just got off the road with Mötley Crüeís Vince Neil. And two of the three Matrix-produced tracks on Metamorphosis are as hot as anything that star conglomerate has done with Avril or Liz Phair. On the opening hit, "So Yesterday," Hilary shows an ex-flame whoís boss: "Iím gonna keep your jeans/And your old black hat/They look good on me/Youíre never gonna get them back." The Matrix surround her with their trademark rainbow of bubblegrunge guitars and background vocals, and they outdo themselves six songs later on "The Math." Itís a grimier version of Avrilís "Sk8er Boy," with another gleeful kiss-off from Hilary: "If you canít do the math/Then get out of the equation."

Like similar first albums by everyone from Madonna to Britney, Metamorphosis isnít going to blow anyone away with its vocals. But the material is so well suited to Hilaryís bubbly persona that singing ability is beside the point. The discís second single, "Come Clean," was produced by John Shanks (Michelle Branch); it adds a driving club beat to rock riffs that donít fall far from the Matrix tree. And when Hilary scrapes the top of her vocal register on the final chorus, itís a classic teen-pop cheap thrill.

After the crackling third track, "Workiní It Out," a close relative of the Something Corporate emo standard "I Woke Up in a Car," the album hits a rough patch. The main offender is the Matrix ballad "Where Did I Go Right," which trades the prime melodrama of Avrilís "Iím with You" for tepid schmaltz. The only other slow dance, "Love Just Is," doesnít raise goosebumps either. But despite her underwhelming pipes, the actress in Hilary sounds as if she were just waiting for someone to write her a killer power ballad.

The secret weapon on Metamorphosis is 19-year-old Haylie, who penned three of the discís last four tracks (the other one is a decent Smash Mouth imitation by, of all people, Meredith "Bitch" Brooks). Sheís performing on her star siblingís current tour, and sheís rumored to have a debut album of her own on the way. Megapop fans should look forward to that, because Haylie has no problem holding her own against the high-priced talent here. The acoustic rocker "Sweet Sixteen" is a windswept birthday joyride: "Iíve got friends who love me/Blue skies are above me/My blond hair is everywhere." The title track is flirty yet innocent ("Come on and give me a kiss/Come on, I insist"), and it works up an intoxicating tropical groove.

The sisters end the disc (not counting the Lizzie bonus track "Why Not") on a serious note with the brief electro proverb "Inner Strength." "Listen girl, gotta know itís true/In the end all youíve got is you," Hilary sings, delivering one of teen popís most familiar messages with soulful understatement. Thanks to stage mom Susan, who helped direct and produce Cinderella, the Duff family appear ready to take their Hollywood franchise to the next level. If Metamorphosis is any indication of whatís to come, then the youth market is in good hands.

WHEN THE BRITNEY-ERA teen-pop explosion died down a few years back, the genre resurrected itself on an "underground" level with the network Radio Disney (1260 AM in Boston). Despite her complete domination of the kidsí format over the past two years, Hilary has only one Top 10 hit ("Come Clean") under her belt at mainstream pop radio. But right now, the hottest song on Radio Disney, JoJoís "Leave (Get Out)," is having no problem making the crucial leap to the FM dial.

"Leave (Get Out)" has a lot in common with Hilaryís "So Yesterday": itís a feisty girl-power anthem in which the singer tells off a boy who does her wrong. "You said that you would treat me right/But you was just a waste of time" is the punch line, and the street vernacular in the second stanza is where it breaks from Radio Disney convention. From the echoes of TLCís classic "No Scrubs" in the opening guitar hook to the presence of producers Soulshock and Karlin (Whitney Houston), "Leave (Get Out)" has an unmistakable R&B pedigree. And thanks to the playground catcalls that enliven the chorus, it also has teen-pop attitude to spare.

The final piece of the Radio Disney puzzle comes to light in the video for "Leave (Get Out)": if it looks as if it were set in middle school, thatís because JoJo is only 13 years old. Born Joanna Levesque and managed by her mother, Diana, she poses under a sign for her native Foxborough in the booklet that accompanies her first CD, JoJo (Universal). (Since mother and daughter now live in New Jersey, the East Coast shirt she wears in the cover photo might be more appropriate.) And though it has yet to crack the R&B charts, the albumís executive producer is Barry Hankerson, who helped launch the careers of R. Kelly and Aaliyah.

At 14 tracks and 52 minutes, JoJo wears thin in places. But itís a promising start to the career of a talented singer who, had she not already been snapped up by the industry, would almost certainly have been a finalist on American Idol in the next few years. She pulls no punches on the opening "Breezy," tearing into the songís biting soul riffs and rival-girl putdowns with youthful abandon. Comparisons with the younger, more restrained Christina Aguilera are already flying; fans can only hope JoJo continues to keep the showboating under control as well as she does here. As for the material, teencentric titles like "Baby Itís You" and "Homeboy" arenít as generic as they sound.

The singer reaches back to her toddler years for a cover of the 1993 SWV smash "Weak," with updated production by the same guy who manned the boards on the original. That song ushers in the discís most intriguing section, which finds JoJo proving that (as Aaliyah once sang) age ainít nothing but a number by racking up a string of writing and production credits. The slow-burning "Keep On Keepiní On," an emotional chronicle of her poor childhood, is the most personal tune here; the funky "Yes or No" revives the tough-girl feel of the albumís first half. On the surface, "Leave (Get Out)" has the mark of a one-hit wonder. But upon closer inspection, it might turn out to be the tip of the iceberg.

Hilary Duff performs this Tuesday, July 20, at the Centrum, 50 Foster Street in Worcester; call (508) 755-6800.


Issue Date: July 16 - 22, 2004
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