NEW YORK — It’s easy to make fun of the Backstreet Boys — and blame them for the bygone boy-band era, which appealed largely to pre-pubescent girls (read: non-discriminating music fans) on the basis that they were safe to crush on. To swap from being a throwback to having a comeback, the Boys are going to have to prove a lot — like that they’re still relevant, that they’re more than pretty faces, and that they’re all grown up now — which is why they’re road-testing a chunk of new material on a club tour that kicked off with a two-night stand at Irving Plaza on Monday and Tuesday.
Backstreet previewed a half dozen new songs, interspersed with a collection of their greatest hits Tuesday on Irving Plaza’s small stage — perhaps not the best place to move around in synchronized formation in their matching white dinner jackets and white fedoras. They tried to have some fun with the tight space — as well as break out of the box, climbing on speakers and reaching out to female fans in the crowd and up on the balcony. But perhaps most telling was when it came time for a new song, they took off the jackets, dropped the choreography and just sang. That’s ultimately what’s going to be the test — does the harmonizing hold up? Are the new songs any good?
The new material is decidedly more mature, less bubbly and sappy than their guilty pleasure hits like “I Want It That Way” and “Shape of My Heart” — with the juxtaposition all the more clear in a set list that jumped back and forth between old and new. With the help of songwriting partners that took them in more of a light rock direction, new songs like “I Still” and the uplifting “Weird World” sound at home in a Maroon 5 world, a transition they seem eager to make. The difference, though, is that while Backstreet are a band, they’re also not, really — not in a rock sense. While Nick Carter tried to change that perception by picking up a six-string during the wistful, guitar-driven “Climbing the Walls” and playing along with the live backing band, the fact remains — they’re a vocal group.
That said, Backstreet seem to have figured out that their best vocalists are A.J. McLean, Nick Carter and Brian Littrell, as they handled most of the verses and solos on the new songs, with Kevin Richardson and Howie Dorough relegated to backup. McLean sings the bulk of the verses of the power ballad “Incomplete,” trading off with Carter for the chorus, who sings the bluesy ending to “Beautiful Woman” and owns “Poster Girl,” a sweet ode to a party girl with a taste for danger (Paris, anyone?). Where Littrell came off as too earnest and Richardson as too serious, McLean and Carter seemed the most at home with the new direction — their voices were smooth, their moves casual and seemingly effortless even when obviously choreographed. They also seemed to be having the most fun with it, and with each other — leaning on one another, singing to each other, and trading silly stage banter about the meaning of songs and life. Because no matter how seriously the Backstreet Boys want to be taken now, they didn’t take themselves too seriously — which is the only way they’re going to win us over again.
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