Here’s a theory: The closer a boy band flies to the sun, the more weathered its members will sound on future solo albums. Consider Justified, the 2002 debut by ’N Sync’s Justin Timberlake, on which Britney’s ex–boy toy came off like a cool, confident 20-something itching to remove your pants. On 2004’s Schizophrenic, Timberlake’s bandmate J.C. Chasez went ahead and removed his, singing literally about masturbation (a topic boy-band protocol limits to the realm of metaphor). Breaking out of the Backstreet Boys in 2002 with Now or Never, Nick Carter revealed his desire to be the next . . . Bryan Adams.
Despite sharing corpulent Svengali Lou Pearlman, O-Town never breathed the same pop-cultural air as the higher-profile NSync or the Backstreet Boys, perhaps because the band’s warts-and-all creation was documented in the reality series Making the Band. A few semi-hits, then a slow Disney Channel death. Fortunately for us, the group’s low-level burn means that Soundtrack to Your Life, the solo debut by O-Town cutie Ashley Parker Angel, crackles with youth — which, in pop, almost always yields more fun than maturity. Angel braved the reality-show waters a second time while making the album; like The Ashlee Simpson Show, this year’s There & Back documented his struggle to define himself against the public’s expectation of failure. And like Simpson’s two excellent albums, Soundtrack contains supertuneful tween rock with surging guitars and sugary choruses Joey Ramone would’ve been proud of.
Another reality-show vet, Nick Lachey is much more famous these days as Jessica’s estranged husband than as a former member of 98 Degrees. But back in the late ’90s those dudes built a sizable following tricking out boy-band pop with blue-eyed-soul harmonies. That renown means that What’s Left of Me, Lachey’s second solo disc, strokes more chin than Soundtrack to Your Life: The music is handsomely arranged and doggedly midtempo pop-rock, full of strummed acoustic guitars, plinked pianos and session-guy drumrolls; Lachey does an excellent impersonation of another celeb hubby, Chris Martin of Coldplay, in “Beautiful,” which openly rips the riff from “Clocks.” Lyrically, he addresses his pending divorce from Simpson but not in the bratty language of a spurned child: “You walked away and stole my life, just to find what you’re looking for,” he sings, while fake violins saw seriously behind him. “But no matter how I try, I can’t hate you anymore.”
Lachey would seem like a real grown-up if it weren’t for Brian Littrell, the Backstreet Boy whose new Welcome Home closes with an a cappella rendering of “Jesus Loves You” introduced by Littrell’s chirping son Baylee. “I want to live my life so differently because of faith,” Littrell sings in the opener, “My Answer Is You,” and so he does: Welcome Home jettisons the dewy dance beats and sly sexual innuendo that made the Backstreets the big daddies of the boy-band scene in favor of bland (but not powerless) contemporary-gospel tunes about “learning the ways of a carpenter’s son.” It’s barely recognizable as the work of a former boy bander, which may be these guys’ ultimate goal.
Next month: Erstwhile cosmonaut Lance Bass sings the songs of Sammy Davis Jr.!