Review Summary: I tried. I tried really, really hard.
The Disney mass marketing scheme that is the Jonas Brothers really made some bank this past year; believe it or not, the opaquely-titled Lines, Vines and Trying Times is the band’s third (!) release in less than a year, although one of them was technically a “concert” record. Their brand of disarmingly infectious power-pop was catchy enough, and their handsome boy-band image coupled with their virtuous Christian beliefs made them the perfect poster child for Disney Channel after Miley’s Vogue semi-meltdown, and damn, have they capitalized. Seriously, go check out their Wikipedia page for the past year.
Besides making ’08-’09 their personal bitch, the band and their handlers found time to record another full-length record with even more bells and whistles than last year’s A Little Bit Longer. If you’ve heard that, don’t come into Lines expecting any radical stylistic divergences – well, except for a couple (which, not surprisingly, fail spectacularly), but for the most part the band’s girl-crazy/power-chord guitar pop stays as strong as ever. And to be honest, despite all my personal disdain for the Disney Channel and the prefabricated pop stars they manage to pump out at an alarming rate, you can’t ignore the pop heart beating at the center of many of these tunes. Obviously several of the songs here have the potential to be platinum singles, while at the same time maintaining the appropriate solid hook/vapid fun ratio that makes a song, if not excellent throwaway pop, definitely tolerable.
First single “Paranoid” is cookie-cutter pop with some fairly nonsensical lyrics about *spoiler* paranoia. Vastly superior opener “World War III” boasts some seriously big-band brass and overly affected vocals by Nick/Joe, which continually reminded me of Taylor Hanson’s recent work with Tinted Windows. Not necessarily a bad thing, and on songs like “Hey Baby” or the fiddle-tastic “What Did I Do To Your Heart,” these emotive vocals save the songs from the ridiculous over-production that surrounds them.
Really, it seems like the Jonas Brothers/producer (John Fields here), discovered that their indeed lies a world beyond guitars, drums, and bass and decided to use a full-on symphony in every song. Most of the time this only muddles the band’s power-pop roots, like most of the horn frenzy that is the first half of the album, or the walls of strings on syrupy ballads like “Black Keys” (surprisingly not about the Midwestern blues duo). It’s this adult-contemporary, everything-and-the-kitchen-sink production mentality that sadly obscures what is the band’s true talents: writing simple, energetic pop songs built on that tried-and-true guitar/drums/bass foundation.
But auditory overload can only amplify some of a song’s catchiest tendencies, and on some efforts, like the obscenely packed “Much Better,” the Jonas Brothers make up for it with insanely fetching hooks, so-cheesy-it’s-good ‘80s production values, and lyrics like “all the tears on her guitar / I’m not bitter . . . “now I see everything I’d ever need / is the girl in front of me / she’s much better” (ZING Taylor! You so just got dissed). But the best is yet to come – just check out how Joe sings the chorus at the 3:18 minute mark, particularly his falsetto version. Maybe those purity rings are just for show…
Indeed, this album would have a fairly average rating if it weren’t for two unforgivable miscalculations, “Poison Ivy” and “Don’t Charge Me With The Crime ft. Common” (no, that’s not a typo). The former is a twisted pastiche of the brothers’ typical power-pop with some neutered hair metal influences. It sounds just as bad as you might imagine; I’d like to think the “gimme some poison baby” exclamation at the end is a clue that the Jonas Brothers are in on this seemingly forced genre exercise/joke, but I don’t want to jump to any conclusions.
“Poison Ivy” is a mere misdemeanor, however, compared to the faux-rap of “Don’t Charge Me With The Crime.” I don’t know what sort of photos Disney had of Common to blackmail him into this, but suffice to say that the song and his guest spot must be heard to be believed. Combine lyrics like “friend gets in the car with bags / filled to the top with loads of cash / throws his pistol on the dash” and Common’s chanting things like “tried to get rich / but they labeled me filthy,” with a “threatening” guitar line and assorted atmospheric sounds that just scream “hard-ass criminals.”
Lines, Vines and Trying Times is not the power-pop masterpiece many fans expected after A Little Bit Longer, which admittedly had its merits, but nor is it the utter disaster that even more expect every time the Jonas Brothers plug in their instruments. Then again, even in the realm of manufactured boy bands, Lines is at times unbearably embarrassing, a caricature of the light pop/rock they made their names on: I can honestly say “Don’t Charge Me With The Crime” is one of the few real songs that made me laugh on first listen. Perhaps this is their singular foray into their version of experimentation, and they’ll leave the thirty-two-piece orchestra and bombastic brass in the studio. Just pray they don’t get Timbaland on board.