Music Reviews

A Powerful, Necessary Nostalgia Radiates Throughout Brian Robert Jones’ NO STRINGS ATTACHED

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Genre: Cover Album

Favorite tracks: “It Makes Me Ill,” “This I Promise You,” “Space Cowboy”

NO STRINGS ATTACHED has remained in the public consciousness for the better part of the past two decades. For many millennials, it is a beacon of The Last Good Year™. Pre-Bush. Pre-9/11. Pre-existing with the ever-growing understanding that the world is, in fact, a very bad place.

At the time of its release in 2000, NO STRINGS ATTACHED was a revelation. Free of their ties with Lou Pearlman (who also managed Backstreet Boys), NSYNC released an album that pushed Pop music forward into the 21st century. The group dabbled in New Jack Swing, working with genre creator Teddy Riley on their cover of Johnny Kemp’s “Just Got Paid.” They also made their foray into hip hop by working with big-name producers from the industry and featuring Lisa “Left-Eye” Lopes of TLC on “Space Cowboy.” Lopes was among the first hip hop artists to be featured prominently on a pop album of that era—-an approach that has since become a mainstay in the industry. The boy band also worked with choreographer Darrin Hewett Henson, giving an equal focus to dancing and visuals on their sophomore album. That focus proved vital, as the album’s visual components not only contributed to sky-rocketing the group’s success at the time but also gave the album staying power—-people who grew up listening to NSYNC will still break out the “Bye Bye Bye” dance moves when the song inevitably plays at their friends’ weddings (I found myself in such a scenario just last year as I tried in vain to teach a Gen-Z VSCO Girl the steps that once defined my school days). 

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While they may never be trending on TikTok (can something “trend” on TikTok? I don’t know how this shit works), NSYNC was, for a brief moment in time, the biggest pop act in the world—the last act to truly benefit from the pop industry bubble that burst as listeners migrated to digital streaming options. The success of NSYNC has since been matched in the digital age by groups like One Direction or currently BTS, who are on their way to achieving global domination as we’ve never seen before, but now that the perfected pop blueprint NSYNC laid out with NO STRINGS ATTACHED has been remodeled for the current landscape, what is the album’s role today if not just as a meme or favorite back-pocket pick of wedding DJs everywhere?

Enter Brian Robert Jones. 

The multi-instrumentalist best known by the masses for his work as a touring guitarist with Vampire Weekend has enlisted the help of his musically inclined friends for his reimagining of NSYNC’s most iconic album. Much like how Jones’ energy and prowess as a guitarist breathed new life into Vampire Weekend’s live sets, his talents as both an instrumentalist and producer shine a new light on the album that inspired his love of music as a child. It’s clear this is a labor of love for Jones. He doesn’t overwork the songs to the point that they’re unrecognizable; there are no dull, formulaic acoustic covers to be found. Instead, Jones highlights much of the album’s best elements while still managing to carry it into 2020 and beyond.

Among Jones’ best contributions to NO STRINGS ATTACHED are his funkadelic takes on “Space Cowboy” and “It Makes Me Ill,” two songs that are perhaps forgotten by casual fans, but beloved by the true ones. The bass line groove on “Space Cowboy” elevates the song from a fun but corny addition on the original NSA to an album standout. Funky bass and guitar licks also take center stage on “It Makes Me Ill,” replacing the piano and a bubble-like drum track on the original for a refreshing, danceable hit.

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Jones experiments the least on the two most well-known singles from NO STRINGS ATTACHED, allowing the fan favorites to stand mostly on their own. He’s added vocoder and synths, but you can still break out the puppet hands with his take on “Bye Bye Bye.” Featured vocalist Ren Farren makes sure to leave everyone’s favorite April 30th meme intact on “It’s Gonna Be Me.”

Farren takes another turn on the mic on “This I Promise You,” accompanied by Jones’ best display of instrumentation on the album. The airy saxophone intro and luscious guitar work throughout the track are a vast improvement upon the original. Jones eventually erupts into a cosmic guitar solo on a two minute long outro that also features drum work from Vampire Weekend’s Chris Tomson, the album’s greatest moment. It’s a beautiful sonic achievement still fit for wearing turtlenecks and vibing in the woods. Now, though, the sweaters have been tie-dyed by Jones.

In an Instagram post, Jones called this project a “source of joy” for him during these objectively shitty times. I’ve always found that the best pop music serves that exact purpose, acting purely as an instant boost of serotonin when you need it most. With his take on NO STRINGS ATTACHED, Brian Robert Jones has recreated a high I haven’t felt since I was seven years old, learning every step to the “It’s Gonna Be Me” music video so that my friends and I could put on a “concert” for our entire summer camp. He treats the source material with humble respect, while still approaching his interpretation with a creative flair that modernizes the album further. While there has seemingly been too much nostalgia-driven media in pop culture in recent years, Jones makes the case that when done with care and respect, a little nostalgia can be quite good for us all.

Becca Lengel
Becca is a New England native who now needs a sweater when it drops below 70 degrees in Southern California. When she’s not yelling about Tom Brady, you can probably find her brushing up on early 2000s pop culture or watching BURNT (2015).

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