I desperately want to be a champion for Jordan Knight. A lot of folks think “Hangin’ Tough” at the mention of his name and conjure up memories of the era when you couldn’t escape Jordan’s metal-filled mug on coffee cups, posters, notebooks, etc. But the fact remains that the guy has talent. Hell, YOU try to sing “I’ll Be Lovin’ You (Forever)”. The guy’s got vocal skills and good taste in influences- The Stylistics’ Russell Thompkins Jr. and Luther Vandross are the names that have come up the most when Jordan’s discussed the folks who inspired his singing style.

The issue then, and the issue now, is material. NKOTB’s biggest hits weren’t necessarily designed to hold up twenty years later, and unless you heard the New Kids’s solid 1994 effort Face the Music or Jordan’s excellent solo debut from 1999, you probably aren’t aware of what the guy is capable of when given the right songs. Despite the good reviews he received from that solo album, he’s seemed to be somewhat adrift in the years since-there was the ill-advised set of NKOTB covers, yet another covers album (this one tackling love songs from the Eighties), and an EP called The Fix which suffered from a lack of sympathetic production as well as some regrettable lyricism from Jordan (whose songwriting can occasionally come off like a blog entry from a horny 17 year old boy.)

The New Kids’ reunion album, 2008’s The Block, found Jordan and his boys trying a little too hard to fit in with contemporary pop-I blame it on Jimmy Iovine. Regardless of whose fault it was, The Block was still a mediocre showcase for Jordan’s vocal prowess, saddled with occasionally inane songwriting and, most offensively, swathing the group’s voices in tons of Auto-Tune. Donnie Wahlberg? I can see why HE needs auto-tune (no disrespect, homie…just sayin’.) Jordan Knight, on the other hand, needs no such thing.

So I didn’t know what to expect from Jordan’s fifth solo album, Unfinished. Lead single “Let’s Go Higher” led me to believe that the album would be kind of The Block, Part 2. And there are definite similarities. It’s very tempo-driven, as they say, a fact that doesn’t necessarily play to Jordan’s biggest strengths. He’s a balladeer. An R&B balladeer. However, Jordan’s idol Luther was able to rock some solid dance jams in addition to his trademark baby-making ballads, and while I am in no way comparing Jordan to LV, Unfinished is a pretty decent album all in all.

Jordan was savvy enough to collaborate with sympathetic songwriters (including the ubiquitous Ryan Tedder, who co-writes two tracks here), and come up with songs that are melodically sound enough to succeed in spite of the occasional unnecessary studio trickery (yes, there is a fair amount of Auto-Tune here, but it’s not overkill.) The music is more or less age-appropriate, and every song on the album is at the very least decent. Standouts include the title track (which has a chorus so big you could park an SUV in it-this should be a HUGE radio hit), the power ballad “Kiss it Away”, and the dreamy midtempo R&B ballad “Stingy”, which hinges on a replayed piece of PM Dawn’s “Set Adrift on Memory Bliss”. The way to my heart is through the words of Prince Be. Who knew?

It’s always nice to have your expectations exceeded, and Unfinished surpassed my admittedly modest expectations. Hell, even the regrettable titled “O-Face” (really, Jordan?) is a pretty decent dance jam. If you’re a fan of the type of dance-pop that’s floating around the airwaves these days, this would totally be up your alley, and even if Top 40 radio scares you these days, Jordan brings enough vocal finesse and songwriting panache to make Unfinished palatable to the more discriminating listener. While I wish he would go more of an R&B route, I can roll with this for now.

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Grade: B

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