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’N Sync’s ‘Greatest Hits’ ain’t so great

Unless you long to recapture teen-age innocence, stick with ‘Celebrity’
/ Source: The Associated Press

Nope, you can't say “Bye Bye Bye” to ’N Sync just yet. Justin Timberlake's former boy band is back with their “Greatest Hits” this week, along with other record reviews.

“Greatest Hits,” ’N SyncAh, the giddy boy-band heyday of the late 1990s — don't you miss it? The harmony ... the choreography ... the white boys in cornrows?

Yeah, me neither.

Regardless, 'N Sync has released a greatest hits disc. And even though it wasn't that long ago, let's just say early 'N Sync sounds a bit tinny and dated. Because truly, they have evolved as artists. Puberty will do that.

The appropriately titled "Greatest Hits" is heavy on the old-school stuff. Four of the 12 songs are from their 1998 self-titled debut album: the incessantly perky “I Want You Back” and “Tearin' Up My Heart,” and the slow jamz “God Must Have Spent a Little More Time on You” and “I Drive Myself Crazy.” One boy-band ballad, though, is as interchangeable and non-threatening as another. They may as well be the Backstreet Boys and take over the adult contemporary chart.

Three others are from 2000's “No Strings Attached” — “Bye Bye Bye” (which is still an insanely catchy song), “It's Gonna Be Me” (the last word of which de facto frontman Justin Timberlake always pronounced like “may”) and “This I Promise You.”

All of these sound cheesy and overproduced compared to their later songs from “Celebrity,” which marked the beginning of Justin and JC Chasez's singer-songwriter phase as well as the apparent beginning of the end of 'N Sync, with the members quickly branching out into “solo projects.”

Sadly, “Celebrity” only has three entries here: “Pop,” “Girlfriend” and “Gone” (far and away the greatest 'N Sync song ever — soulful, passionate, wistful, with a gorgeously shot black-and-white video). And of those, the version of “Girlfriend” is that annoying remix featuring Nelly.

I'm sorry, “Girlfriend” truly is one of the quintet's greatest hits, with its Jackson 5-esque bass line. Nelly has his charms and all, but here he just gets in the way.

Skip past the other two tracks: “I'll Never Stop,” which previously hadn't been released in the United States but is virtually indistinguishable from “Tearin' Up My Heart,” and that corny song with Gloria Estefan from the Meryl Streep movie “Music of the Heart.”

Only if you're longing for the innocence of your teen years will you want this entire album. Otherwise, just stick with “Celebrity,” which in retrospect is looking better all the time — and which you probably already have in your iPod anyway. It's OK to admit it.— Christy Lemire

Mahler “Symphony No. 1,” “Songs of a Wayfarer,” Benjamin Zander
One down, three to go.

Conductor Benjamin Zander’s recording of Mahler’s First Symphony with the Philharmonia Orchestra brings him one step closer to completion of his unique cycle of Mahler’s symphonies.

Many other conductors have recorded them, but Zander stands high above the Alpine clouds. His series includes an explanatory CD in which he unshrouds some of the mysteries behind the tormented composer’s revolutionary music. Like recorded walking guides at art museums, Zander’s ear-opening commentaries take the listener on a tour.

In this recording, Zander couples the symphony with the “Songs of a Wayfarer,” whose themes are incorporated into the larger work. The songs, sung by baritone Christopher Maltman with exceptional clarity and great feeling, tell of the composer’s failed romance with a singer who was noticed more for her striking blond hair and blue eyes than for her voice. In the first song, for example, the composer laments about the saddest day of his life — the day his beloved married someone else.

Despite the wayfarer’s despondent themes, the symphony ultimately is a journey of triumph. It starts with the nothing less than the dawn of creation, depicted by an amorphous seven-octave A, the note to which orchestras tune. “It is the tuning of the universe,” Zander says. “It’s as if at the beginning of the symphony God turns up the volume just a tiny bit.”

The listener soon encounters the sounds of the forest — a cuckoo, hunting horns — before the cellos play the joyous theme of the second song. Other denizens of the late-19th century Austro-Hungarian Empire later appear — military bands, gypsy bands, klezmer musicians, street musicians. The third movement sets the folk song “Frere Jacques” in a minor key, depicting a funeral. The final movement, Zander says, is a great battle against the status quo. It opens with a dissonant chord that Mahler called “an outcry of a deeply wounded heart,” not unlike Beethoven’s “cry of terror” that opens that composer’s Ninth Symphony, Zander says.

Mahler’s task, Zander says, “was to tell the truth about himself without compromise, without flinching. And from an abundance of creative energy and a life lived to the full to a degree that probably few people have ever known, he revealed himself as the most human of heroes, struggling relentlessly against the philistinism of the commonplace, transporting all those with the ears to hear into a world of musical beauty, truth and idealism unlike anything that had existed before him.”

After the CD is released Tuesday, all that’s left for Zander’s series is the Second, Seventh and the mammoth Eighth. Zander says he may skip Mahler’s unfinished 10th, but he does hope to record “Das Lied von der Erde.”— Martin Steinberg

“In the Heart of the Moon,” Ali Farka Toure and Toumani Diabate“In the Heart of the Moon” is a gentle conversation between two instruments and the masters who play them. Ali Farka Toure is famous for bridging the musical divide between Malian music and American blues with his electric guitar. Toumani Diabate is known as the prince of the West African harp/lute called the kora, hailing from 70 generations of griots and musicians. The two join forces on “In the Heart of the Moon,” with Toure’s steady guitar work providing a tightly woven canvas, and Diabate’s virtuosic kora work adding the colors.

The tracks were recorded unrehearsed, in one take each. Like the improvisation that is the “language” of this conversation, everything about the album just flows. When a Latin bass line is added, the Kora begins to sound like a flamenco guitar on “Ai Ga Bani.” When the tempo slows for “Gomni,” a Delta blues feel emerges. Some moody affects added to the mix for “Hawa Dolo,” make the kora resemble an electric guitar, gently weeping its way through a rock ’n’ roll ballad.

There are no party tunes here. The tempo barely rises above that of a moonlit stroll. What will rise is the spirit of all who listen closely.— Aimee Maude Sims