By Jim Farber
May 17, 1999 at 04:00 AM EDT
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Backstreet Boys standardized the soft male side of the pop charts early last year when their self-titled debut started selling more than 100,000 copies per week (it’s currently at 7.9 million and counting). If Hanson broke through first, Backstreet offered a more imitable sound, directly presaging ‘N Sync, 98°, Boyzone, and the latest soundalikes on the block, C Note.

The style Backstreet patented on their debut — and which they eagerly continue on the new ”Millennium” — cleverly merges two genres: slinky American R&B and chirpy Euro-pop. Just as black R&B reached a new chart peak, the Boys came along to whiten it. To help them do so, an army of handlers commissioned songs for the Boys’ debut from pop whiz Robert ”Mutt” Lange (Shania Twain, Bryan Adams, etc.), ’80s R&B act Full Force, and Max Martin, a key writer for Ace of Base.

Martin and Lange return for ”Millennium,” but Full Force have moved on to pen for C Note. In their stead, two B-Boys, Brian Littrell (the short guy who looks like a sprite) and Kevin Richardson (the tall guy with eyebrows like caterpillars) pen several new tracks, the first writing from the group’s own ranks. Fans needn’t worry about the change affecting the sound. The new album practically xeroxes the debut. Its four upbeat cuts sound like the old ”Everybody (Backstreet’s Back),” complete with burping hook and retro-’80s rock/R&B arrangement, while ”Don’t Want You Back” directly samples that song. All the ballads suggest sequels to ”As Long as You Love Me.”

At least those formulas prove worth repeating: The faster tracks recall the best of ’80s Michael Jackson. A slow one, ”I Want It That Way,” ranks as the bubblegum ballad of the year. It’s so likable, it doesn’t matter that the group’s voices are the sonic equivalent of warm milk.

The Boys take one significant risk with the lyrics. Teen acts normally can’t acknowledge their romantic power. They have to remain the longing ones in order to seal the twin fantasies of purity and accessibility. Yet in ”Don’t Want You Back,” the Boys do the rejecting! Don’t worry, girls. The group more than make up for it with goo like ”The Perfect Fan,” a salute to their mothers that could make even Pat Robertson wretch. There’s also ”Larger Than Life,” a howler casting fans as the superhuman force in the exchange between listener and star. Luckily, with a group like the Backstreet Boys, the more cheese appeal, the better.

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