Roughin’ Justin

Pub date October 3, 2006
SectionMusicSectionSonic Reducer

SONIC REDUCER Don’t be tripping, sit your sexy back down slowly, and I’ll try to break the news to you gently: Justin Timberlake and I have a history.
OK, it’s not like we sat around in Pampers and OshKosh B’Gosh, playing gastroenterologist with Barbie and GI Joe and gurgling along to “White Lines.” Though I am getting a dose of feverish white-line nostalgia listening to coke-daddy ode “Losing My Way” off dusty Justy’s new Jive album, Speakerboxxx … whoops, I mean FutureSex/LoveSounds. And it’s not as if we met on The Mickey Mouse Club, brawling over mouse ears and bawling about diaper rash and paltry camera time. We don’t go that way back.
But Kimberly discovered Timberly long before a certain sheepish someone made contact with that Jackson scion’s nipple ornament. I first saw el Cueball, as I so lovingly dubbed my mousy darling’s shaved pate, fronting *NSYNC at the Santa Clara County Fair around ’98. You know, back when the strings were still apparent. I was there with a few other geezer peers, measuring the hype on the opening local Filipino American vocal group, when the budding boy banders entered prancing and the 14-year-old girls went positively cuckoo, clutching photos and near weeping with longing as Timberlake and company worked the whistled theme to Welcome Back, Kotter into the encore.
Then I met up with Timby again at the Oakland Arena when the “Justified and Stripped” tour broke away from the rest of the bubblegum boys and strapped on Christina Aguilera. Whatever you think of Aguilera’s dirty-girl front, she certainly displayed pipes and pride live, strutting around like Femlin in a black corset and short pants and belting out “Beautiful.” But that was forgotten when Timberhunk emerged — thin voice or no, the little girls were still going utterly nutzoid. They screamed, freaked, and gaped like ravenous baby birds beneath the catwalk he beatboxed upon. That’s the power of cute, man.
But Just-oh doesn’t want to be just cute anymore, as the cover of FutureSex attests: suited up in a skinny black suit like a baby Reservoir Dog, little buckeroo looks outright pissed, crushing a disco ball beneath his heel. If Justified hasn’t made it perfectly clear, Timberlake wants to be considered a force — artistic, tough-guy, whatev — to be reckoned with. Pity the poor pop-pets — Madonna, Britney, Justy — they all have such an ambivalent relationship with le fickle dance floor. FutureSex reeks of such ambition — as the swinging singles prince offers up a kind of archaic devotion to the album format and a familiar if downbeat trajectory tracing a loverboy’s woozy weave from lust to lovesickness. Witness the first half of the full-length: “FutureSex/LoveSound,” “Sexyback,” “Sexy Ladies.” Either someone’s out of synonyms for doing the doity or someone’s ob-sexed.
Musically kitted out by Timbaland in the Neptunes’ absence, FutureSex is clearly intended to be a kind of Prince-ly, sensual opus, and for having the good taste to imitate the most original funk rock stylists of the ’80s, Timba-lake should be commended. But all the CD images of Timbo smashing disco balls seem out of character, overwrought. To wax crassly, Justin tries to show us he has the balls to both musically embrace Grandmaster Flash, Queen, Lil Jon, and yes, the alpha and omega, libertine and spendthrift couple of ’80s soul, Prince and Michael Jackson, and strike out on his own. Just ignore the slimness of Timberlake’s vanilla soul. It’s barely flavored, not quite iced, with techno, barebacked beats, and retro soul, and despite the disc’s initially fluid, almost mirror-ball-like reflective programming, it opens into a dull middle section that’s broken up only by the frisky groove of “Damn Girl.” It makes you wish Timberlake had the courage of his initial fantasy-fueled single’s conviction. If only this disco baller had left it at FutureSex and Timberlake stuck to his, er, cheesy pistols and the Prince of schwing’s original program.

CALIFONE DREAMING Califone’s Tim Rutili can probably understand the urge to try out new personae. While talking about his new, gorgeous album, Roots and Crowns (Thrill Jockey), the frontperson and soundtrack composer fessed up to believing in past lives — and indeed relying on that knowledge when it came to penning tunes about kittens that see ghosts, lost eyes, and black metal fornication. “The writing process is all about that — just letting things bubble up,” he says from Chicago, where the band is rehearsing. And what does he imagine the members of Califone were in a past life? “Circus clowns.”
The ex–Red Red Meat member doesn’t seem to spook easily. Case in point: the last time Califone played San Francisco, their van was broken into. Treasured gear such as Rutili’s grandfather’s 1917 violin and a custom-made acoustic guitar, which he says was “nicer than my house,” were stolen. “They were nice enough to leave stuff that looked shitty,” he waxes positively. “It was heartbreaking, but in the end it forced us to learn a lot of new tricks, open up our ideas, and gather new things. It really did inform the recording to not have to lean on any of the old stuff.”
The scattered Califone seems to be working out the kinks in its evolution, with Rutili in Los Angeles writing music for film and the rest of the band in Chicago and Valparaiso, Ind. “I see us getting older and becoming more creative,” Rutili muses. And most people just get older and watch more TV. “That doesn’t seem to be happening with us, but it makes it more difficult too. TV is easy — keeping your eyes open and your ear to the ground and trying to remain connected and in touch with creativity is difficult.” SFBG
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