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Lachey's sugary `SoulO' can't rise above 98 Degrees

Behold, the power of cheese! If not for the surprise success of MTV's "Newlyweds: Nick and Jessica," the reality show featuring married singers Nick Lachey and Jessica Simpson, Lachey would likely have faded from the pop universe. The boy band 98 Degrees, in which he was the lead singer, came late to the teen-pop party of the late '90s and was soon gone without a trace. Yet the TV show, a seemingly desperate move that has become a career masterstroke, has given Lachey the kind of recognition he never received as a singer. Alas, his first solo album -- the dreadfully titled "SoulO" (Universal) -- won't do much to change his primary public image as the perpetually exasperated husband of a disturbingly dim wife. His mates from 98 Degrees may be absent, but this CD, a blend of sugary ballads and uptempo dance songs, is as bland as anything that third-rate boy band produced. "Shut Up," the first track, which "Newlyweds" watchers will remember Lachey argued was a sign of his maturity as an artist, hardly sounds like the singer has moved beyond the undemanding tastes of the prepubescent girls who supported his old group. (The Matrix, the team behind Avril Lavigne and the latest Liz Phair album, produced this song and two other tracks.) Lachey comes across better on the ballad "This I Swear," but it's a standard teen-pop prom ballad. Lachey wrote or co-wrote eight of the album's 12 tracks, and even if his isn't the most compelling voice, he could -- with the right producers and writers -- make an interesting pop album. "SoulO" isn't it. Still, if it isn't as engaging as Justin Timberlake's "Justified," at least it isn't as jarringly bad as Nick Carter's "Now or Never."

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