Jonas Brothers: Power-pop, oversung

Posted: July 24, 2009

Nick, Joe and Kevin Jonas have built their career on seeming like the boys next door, but their show at the Wachovia Center on Thursday night made it clear that they've moved to a fancier neighborhood.

Performing on a round stage lit by an overhead video array that looked like an upside-down wedding cake, and backed by as many as 10 musicians, the brothers seemed more like alpha dogs than eager pups, determined to mark every inch of their territory.

Musically, at least, the concert was more coherent than their new album, Lines, Vines and Trying Times, whose calculated attempts to touch on every genre of popular music give it a distinctly Frankenstnian air. With a few exceptions, their 90-minute set focused on the upbeat, lyrically lightweight power pop that is their stock in trade. There were a few twists to the formula, like the four-piece horn section that punched up "World War III," but for the most part it was business as usual.

Business is, of course, the key word. Even in an increasingly fragmented culture, teenage girls (as well as a substantial number of full-grown women, to judge from the crowd) can still agree on the appeal of non-threatening, vaguely tortured pop idols whose songs require less digestion than a cup of simple sugar.

With more than eight million records sold, concert films, TV specials and their own sitcom, not to mention the commercial endorsements that filled the center's halls and even the airspace between acts, the Jonas clan is a profit-making machine.

They've even got their own farm team in the form of the Jonas Group, which squeezes acts like openers Honor Society into the Jonas mold, although the postcoital imagery of "See U in the Dark" doesn't exactly fit their mentors' squeaky-clean image. They also shined the spotlight, briefly, on the South Asian girl group Wonder Girls, whose one-song performance failed to make much of an impression.

The Jonas Brothers' music may go down easy, but they sure try to make it look hard, straining each syllable as if they're simultaneously singing and lifting weights. Their cover of Neil Diamond's "Sweet Caroline" placed them in a long lineage of gratuitous oversingers.

Sixteen-year-old Nick was the worst offender, both in terms of his vocals and his sullen moue. Even the spoken interlude in "A Little Bit Longer" was delivered as a guttural grunt. No doubt a few hearts broke as Nick described the diabetes diagnosis that inspired by the song, but his monologue might have been more moving had it not been nearly word-for-word the same as the one he delivered at the Susquehanna Bank Center in Camden last August.

Jordin Sparks, who preceded the Jonases on stage, and returned late in their set to sing the title track of her new album, Battlefield, at least seemed to be enjoying herself. A belter in the tradition of her American Idol predecessor Kelly Clarkson, she sang about plenty of heartbreak, but she did so with a full-throated zest that suggested the release good pop songs can provide. Perhaps she can remind Nick Jonas that being a star is supposed to be fun.

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