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When Flannery O'Connor wrote that "conviction without experience makes for harshness," she was referring to the tendency of naïve if sincere believers to proselytize with something less than grace and charity. But any conviction-political, emotional, philosophical-has the potential to grate when coming from those who've walked fewer miles than their listeners.
So it is that the songs on Lines, Vines and Trying Times (Hollywood), the recent No. 1 album by the Jonas Brothers, seem like nothing so much as the work of talented kids pretending to be adults. This impression derives less from the Jonas' actual ages (Kevin and Joe are old enough to vote) than from a sound and cameo roster (Miley Cyrus, the rapper Common) that are obviously the result of corporate test marketing and from lyrics that no real-life grown-up would ever bring himself to paraphrase, let alone quote.
Like a film in which the special effects are the stars, the album boasts instrumentation and production so slick and over-elaborate that one can't help suspecting they're meant to hide "holes in the script." With the exception of "Black Keys" and "Turn Right," quiet numbers that would sound just as pretty with solo piano and acoustic guitar, respectively, it's difficult to imagine the songs surviving the "unplugged" treatment.
And for the most part the singing comes off similarly affected: The jacked-up intensity of Nick's vocal turn on "World War III" could almost pass for a latter-day Michael Jackson impersonation. One will easily sympathize with the Jonas' primarily teenaged fans if, several years down the road, they revisit this album and suspect that they'd been manipulated.
One song, however, feels completely natural, updating the '70s smooth-soul stylings of Thom Bell with a minimum of fuss. Its title: "Much Better." And it is.