Paula Abdul plunges into her thundering new album, Spellbound, with the steely determination of an underdog with something to prove. It’s almost hard to imagine what, since Abdul’s 1988 debut, Forever Your Girl, established her as the hard-working queen of the hop. But even after 7 million copies sold, Abdul and her producers haven’t dispelled the nagging impression — exacerbated by her tiny voice and the album’s heavily processed sound — that despite her likability and the hummable hooks of her songs, Abdul has little to say and no particularly interesting way of saying it.
Since nobody likes to be considered a simpleton, the Abdul of Spellbound goes overboard to convince you she is more than just a singing Barbie doll. Eight of the album’s 11 tracks were produced and cowritten by the Family Stand, an R&B trio who toss hip-hop rhythms, house music, and uptown funk into an ebullient, constantly spinning musical Cuisinart. Prince is here too, writing and producing the crunchy throwaway ”U,” and Abdul even covers a song by quirky country-folk songwriter John Hiatt. The results aren’t as laughable as they might seem (although she and producer Don Was turn Hiatt’s ”Alright Tonight” into smiley-face fodder for her next Diet Coke commercial). But the album strives so hard for legitimacy that it makes you forget what was fun about Abdul in the first place.
The Family Stand sound primed and pumped — perhaps too much so — for the dual challenge of producing the follow-up (excluding the 1990 dance-remix collection, Shut Up and Dance) to one of the biggest-selling debuts in pop history, and taking Abdul’s music to a higher level. Wrapping her voice in layers of audio gauze, the producers load each track with stuttering beats, synthesizers that ring like glockenspiels, and any other gizmos they found in the studio.
At its best — notably the buoyant opener, ”The Promise of a New Day” — the album is a rollicking electronic playground, an inner-city carnival on its busiest night. For all the Family Stand’s efforts to pump up the volume, though, Spellbound rises or falls with its star, and that’s where the album is less than spellbinding: It almost doesn’t matter whether Abdul can actually sing. Her voice is merely part of the technofurniture, and the Family Stand shape it like Silly Putty to make it sound sultry, funky, or sincere (as on the soft-focus ballad ”Rush Rush,” the first single). Most revealingly, they distort Abdul to sound like a recording-studio special effect: On ”Vibeology,” she at times even sounds like an electronic troll.
The best of Abdul’s early singles were joyfully synthetic in both music and vocal delivery — and worked for that very reason. The Family Stand don’t seem to understand that simple concept. Instead, they burden Abdul with phrases like ”I’m in a funky way!” and power-to-the-people lyrics, all in a vain attempt to flesh out a personality that isn’t there to begin with. In doing so, all they accomplish is making her seem all the more limited: Spellbound ultimately proves more about Paula Abdul than she probably intended. C+