Has-been pop stars.

Songs you've got to hear.
Nov. 4 2005 4:22 PM

Has-Been Pop Stars

New albums from Queen, Barbra Streisand, Gavin Rossdale, and others.

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Queen + Paul Rodgers Return of the Champions (Hollywood, 2005) Listen to "Another One Bites the Dust."

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Queen, the once-mighty English glam-rock band led by flamboyant front man Freddie Mercury, have been afforded multiple occasions to hang up the hairspray and leather trousers. There is a popular West End musical, We Will Rock You, based around the group's songs. There is a new tribute disc, Killer Queen, featuring cover versions by Sum 41 and Gavin DeGraw, among others. And there is the not-insignificant fact that Mercury, universally regarded as the band's center, died from complications of AIDS in 1991. Still, guitarist Brian May and drummer Roger Taylor have ignored these harbingers of obsolescence, so now there is Return of the Champions, a remarkably irrelevant two-disc recording of a show the outfit played last May in Sheffield, with former Bad Company singer Paul Rodgers (hardly) filling Mercury's shoes. Why? Because Queen played two gigs in the United States last month—their first in 23 years—and Americans love nothing more than product. (An accompanying DVD hit stores a couple of weeks ago.) To paraphrase Mercury, this group, so devoid of any discernible purpose, needs to bite the dust. Jamiroquai Dynamite (Epic, 2005) Listen to "Talullah."

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As has-been pop stars go, the terminally behatted Jamiroquai front man Jay Kay does an appealing job of not letting go. That might be because he simply doesn't know how: Since 1993, when he made a brief splash with an impossibly corny (yet legitimately funky) brand of ecologically minded disco-pop, Kay has turned up every few years with a new batch of tunes that only a scientist (or Stevie Wonder) could distinguish from the one that preceded it. Dynamite closes an especially long gap for Jamiroquai; it follows A Funk Odyssey, which received a lukewarm welcome when it was released on Sept. 11, 2001. Has the widespread geopolitical tumult of the intervening four years made an impact on Kay's music? Not a bit: The cotton-candy flutes and taut Studio 54 strings that buoy "Talullah" provide a clear-cut path to musical escapism. Kay may be as out of touch as the surviving members of Queen, but at least his delusion is beautifully appointed. Institute Distort Yourself (Interscope, 2005) Listen to "Bullet Proof Skin."and "When Animals Attack."

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Gavin Rossdale's renown as Mr. Gwen Stefani eclipses the reputation he built leading Bush, the mid-'90s group who shared a reputation with Stone Temple Pilots as alt-rock's least-credible act. But now Rossdale is back playing in a band—one whose name, Institute, is as vague and forgettable as the old one's. What's surprising is whom Rossdale's chosen to work with: Both Institute's guitarist, Chris Traynor, and its producer, Page Hamilton, are members of Helmet, the abrasive noise-rock outfit that many credit with jumpstarting the late-'90s nü-metal craze. The title of Institute's debut, Distort Yourself, is apt; throughout the disc, Rossdale and Hamilton roughen up Bush's manicured grunge-pop with razorblade guitars and punishing rhythms. Will it provide a platform for Rossdale's critical rehabilitation? Probably not. Does it beat playing Stefani's hollaback boy? No doubt. Bloodhound Gang Hefty Fine (Geffen/Republic, 2005) Listen to "Foxtrot Uniform Charlie Kilo"and "I'm the Least You Could Do."

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Jimmy Pop, who leads Pennsylvania's Bloodhound Gang, is the smartest kind of has-been: the kind with nothing to lose. Pop and his band of merry chuckleheads hit it big in 2000 with "The Bad Touch," a synth-pop pastiche about "do[ing] it like they do on the Discovery Channel." (If you attended a tailgate party at any point between 2000 and 2002, you've heard it.) "The Bad Touch" should have vaulted them to one-hit-wonder status, and Pop seems to know it. So, he spends Hefty Fine, the Gang's fourth album, finding out what else he can get away with. (Because no one's listening, the answer is anything.) "Foxtrot Uniform Charlie Kilo,"Fine's excellent lead single, is a bouncy Weezer parody. Pop nails Rivers Cuomo's adenoidal deadpan, while his bandmates kick up a tidy storm of tuneful guitar crunch. The track even gets Cuomo's childish, passive-aggressive attitude toward sex right: "Put the you-know-what in the you-know-where," Pop sings with an impressive degree of sincerity. If these goofballs can somehow break out, Eminem (who's namedropped in "Strictly for the Tardcore") might have some new competition. Barbra Streisand Guilty Pleasures (Columbia, 2005) Listen to "Night of My Life."

"Working with an artist like Barbra is once in a lifetime," Barry Gibb of the Bee Gees says in a DVD interview bundled with a new 25th-anniversary edition of Guilty, the excellent soft-focus disco-pop album he and Barbra Streisand made together in 1980. Make that twice in a lifetime: The new Guilty Pleasures reunites the singer and the producer-songwriter for a second grab at boomer relevance. Sadly, Barry and Babs' once-potent chemistry has hardened into high-gloss schlock. Where Guilty actually made good on its title's promise of genteel raunch, Pleasures is pure Malibu pillow talk: trite lyrics, Muzak arrangements, complacent performances. "Night of My Life," a disco throwback replete with snoozeworthy descriptions of everlasting love, is the one exception, since what it's actually about is Streisand's inhuman showbiz drive. "I fight to the end for the night of my life," she and Gibb crow over a surplus-J. Lo beat, "and nothing will get in my way." Tenacity, thy name is (still) Barbra.

Mikael Wood lives in New York and contributes to Spin, Revolver, the Village Voice, and other publications.

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