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Christina Aguilera
Christina Aguilera's latest release, "Back to Basics," is a double-disc concept album.

Aguilera is too clever by half

Her chops outshine the 'Basics' concept

From the looks of things, Christina Aguilera has passed through her high-raunch young adulthood (see 2002's ``Stripped") and is settling nicely into the saucy sophisticate years. Goodbye, crotch shots and rough sex. Hello, vampy dresses and platinum tresses.

But Aguilera, the thinking music lover's pop tart, isn't restricting her makeover to an aesthetic tweak (and a marriage). On Tuesday , she'll release a 22-track, double-disc concept album called ``Back to Basics." The first half, a sample-driven dance-floor collection, pays tribute ``to those before me who laid it down and paved the way," as outlined in ``Intro (Back to Basics)," the opening track.

That includes pretty much every reputable R&B and jazz artist from Billie Holiday to Stevie Wonder, all of whom are name-checked in ``Back in the Day." Which begs the question: which day, exactly? All of them seem to merge into a general-purpose mash-up of 20th - century soul music and modern studio wizardry. The result ranges from evocative (``Understand" beautifully fuses Betty Harris's recording of Allen Toussaint's ``Nearer to You" with Aguilera's steroidal chops) to enervating (not even the strains of Candi Staton's ``The Best Thing You Ever Had" can transform the rote survivor's anthem ``Here to Stay" into something more than filler).

Mainly, though, ``Back to Basics" comes off like a clever idea -- artfully produced, exuberantly rendered, and conveniently designed to relieve Aguilera from the need to have her own ideas. But credit where credit is due: Aguilera can sing anything, she respects her elders, and, most critically, made the astute first move of sending notes to various producers, accompanied by a mix tape of her favorite old songs, inviting them to mix, match, chop, and fuse at whim. Truly inventive arrangements, courtesy of DJ Premier, Kwame, Big Tank , and Rich Harrison, are the centerpiece of the project -- and a breath of fresh air in what's become an achingly familiar hip-pop terrain littered with itchy beats and quirky synths. ``Slow Down Baby" is a three-song pileup (two old, one new) that features a tangle of horns and pianos pushed to the edge of sonic sense. Lush pianos reappear throughout the disc, especially piquant in ``On Our Way," a dissonant, complex track skewered with staccato strings and topped with a smooth vocal hook. Steve Winwood makes a left-field appearance on ``Makes Me Wanna Pray," a classic rock/gospel fusion that samples the iconic piano lick from Traffic's ``Glad." The low-down, brass-heavy track on ``Still Dirrty" underlines the tune's message: ``They say that love has gone and changed me / But don't be fooled by everything you see / I still got the naughty in me."

Aguilera, a no-nonsense diva, doesn't beat around the bush. ``Looks like I didn't need you / Still got the album out," she sneers to a former collaborator at the end of the deceptively warm keyboard ballad ``F.U.S.S." The title is allegedly an acronym for ``[Expletive] Scott Storch," the in-demand producer.

The disc is choked with declarations of adoration for her new husband, Jordan Bratman, including the vivacious, funk-fueled first single, ``Ain't No Other Man," which is already a smash. Unfortunately, the adoration doesn't stop there. Aguilera closes down disc one with ``Thank You (Dedication to Fans. . .), an excruciating celebration of herself built around a sound collage of voice message s from fans who have averted suicide, transcended trauma, and survived the war in Iraq thanks to Aguilera's music.

The second half of ``Back to Basics" was produced and co-written top to bottom with Linda Perry, the woman behind Aguilera's mega-hit ``Beautiful." The pair evidently set out to contemporize classic pop and blues of the '20s, '30s, and '40s, but wound up aping the Andrews Sisters (and ripping off ``Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy") on ``Candyman," making a curious stab at woozy, Weimar-era camp with ``Enter the Circus," and crafting an overmannered pastiche of Mae West and Jessica Rabbit on ``Nasty Naughty Boy" and ``I Got Trouble." It feels more like dress-up than songcraft.

In deference to Aguilera's bold new direction, the pair back-loaded the disc with the power ballads, which actually sound wonderfully authentic on the heels of the preceding efforts. ``Hurt" is the statuesque sequel to ``Beautiful." ``Mercy on Me" is a textbook bombastic blues, but Aguilera belts it with conviction. The following track, ``Save Me From Myself," is startlingly intimate -- less for the lyric (another valentine to Jordan) and more because Aguilera sounds, for the first and only time during this marathon romp, like she's standing in the room and not on a stage.

Aguilera is surely the most gifted vocalist among her contemporaries. She sings circles around Britney, Jessica, Hilary, and Pink. And her desire to pay respects and revive interest in the jazz and soul greats is admirable. Inserting herself into that artistic lineage, however, is a crap shoot -- one that doesn't quite pay off.

Joan Anderman can be reached at

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