** (TWO STARS)
I enjoyed parts of Spears' last record "Femme Fatale," so my hopes were upbeat for "Britney Jean." Like its predecessor, "Britney Jean" is a bolder record. It is less robotic than both "Blackout" and "Circus" and Britney's voice is shockingly pushed further to the forefront of many of the mixes. This is good partially because it adds the human element missing from many of her songs, but also detrimental given her limited vocal range.
She can sing very few select notes clearly and she hits all of them during the sweet spot in the chorus of "Perfume," where she sings, "I'll never tell, tell on myself, but I hope she smells my perfume." In that quiet moment, Spears provides the single best pop moment of her career. The song is a winner, partly due to its slightly new-wave charm, and because the song also tells an interesting story about a love triangle. You don't often get stories from Britney, so this adds a layer to the track, even if on some level this comes off as a subliminal advertisement for her fragrance line. It's the best track on the record and it is also quite winning in the airy remix tacked onto the deluxe edition.
House music has also become a big drive, partly due to unlikely pop-crossover of hits like LMFAO's "Party Rock Anthem" and Psy's "Gangnam Style." "Work Bitch" draws heavily off the legacy of those two tracks, but it really doesn't work. (No pun intended.) Sure, the groove is there, but Britney feels like she's there for decoration. She just mumbles words in what sounds like a faux-cockney accent until the middle of the track when the tempo changes and she actually gets to sing the bridge.
More successful in the house-y realm is "Body Ache" where Britney sings, "I wanna dance 'til my body ache." The grammatical error becomes more irritating as she repeats the line over and over, but it is more of a song than "Work Bitch."
Like most Britney records, there are flecks of Autotune all around, but it is toned down. The exception is the overly-computerized "It Should Be Easy" where both Britney and guest Will.i.am might as well be substituted for synths.
The T.I. assisted "Tik Tik Boom" has some nice synth-work, recalling Ellie Goulding's work and it has some momentarily nice melodic moments, but its static chorus just sits there as Britney seems to beep with the insistence of an alarm.
"Til It's Gone" probably has hit potential, but it feels more like Britney and her team (including David Guetta) are following rather than leading. It is formulaic imitation in hopes of hitting big. That's mostly what keeps "Britney Jean" down as an album and it speaks to a bigger issue. She's coming out of her shell and there is promise in that, but until I hear something on her records with a genuine spark of originality, this will still sound like it was made in a factory by a committee.
"Chillin' With You" is one of the weaker tracks on the record, not only because it finds Britney weirdly cooing over an acoustic guitar but because her voice gets really grating when she chants the chorus, "When I'm wit'chu, I'm chillin,' I'm chillin'!" On top of it all, this is a duet with her sister, Jamie Lynn Spears, who easily out-sings her older sis.
"Passenger" counts among its co-writers, Katy Perry and Sia, which makes one wonder if it was a "Prism" reject. Again, Britney is putting on a way-too-forceful vocal tone, awkwardly pushing the words out. "Don't Cry," the standard album ender, gives way to a middle-of-the-road ballad. As Britney sings, she sounds like someone who has been crying, especially when her voice cracks on the word "survive."
Other than the "Perfume" remix, the deluxe edition offers three passable ballads with "Brightest Morning Star," "Hold On Tight" and "Now That I Found You." The latter suffers though when it picks up the pace during the chorus and morphs into what can essentially be described as electro-dance hoe-down, with what could be a synth banjo buried deeply in the mix. I still say these bonus tracks should've been on the standard edition, because they offer a nice wrap up to the album.
I can't quite recommend "Britney Jean." It's a conflicted record with too many flaws to be considered even good on the whole, but it does show some promise. Britney Spears is still very much a pop confection, but those repeated lines in "Perfume" ultimately almost save the day. For one fleeting moment, she had me smiling.