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Sounds like … the accessible TRL-pop of Ashlee Simpson, Lindsay Lohan, Hilary Duff, and Avril LavigneAt a glance … after a steady progression on their previous two releases, ZOEgirl stalls a bit here on an album that doesn't push teen pop into much new territoryTrack ListingReason to LiveDead SeriousAbout YouScreamForevermoreThe Way You Love MeLet It OutGood GirlNot the OneSkin DeepSafe
As the only group that survived the Christian teen-pop bust of the early '00s—Plus One, True Vibe, V*enna, and many others who never lived to tell the story—ZOEgirl must be doing something right to stay relevant. Some of their peers dropped the choreographed moves and picked up instruments in hopes of a resurgence in popularity. Others went a more adult contemporary route. Some lost credibility with their label homes and were left out in the cold in no time. A few imploded on impact as soon as their debuts hit store shelves. ZOEgirl, however, kept racking up radio, retail, and fan support, becoming the commercial apple of Sparrow Records' eye. How'd they do it?
While many of these quasi-teen sensations tried their best to grow with their audience, ZOEgirl simply looked at market trends and wisely figured that young people no longer had an affinity for matching outfits and bubblegum pop. They turned to the semi-aggressive, grrl power pop/rock of artists like Avril Lavigne, infusing it with their own nonchalant, in-your-face brand of ministry-based lyricism. The result was the confident Different Kind of Free, an album that, in essence, seems to have served as the stepping-stone for their fourth release, Room to Breathe.
In it, the trio (Alisa Girard, Kristin Swinford, and Chrissy Conway) continues to further this uncomplicated, instrument-based new wave of teen-pop. Instead of following the blueprint of Lavigne, however, the ZOEs (or their producers, rather) are perhaps watching the market a bit too closely, now impersonating the canned-yet-highly accessible TRL-pop of new youth culture heroines Ashlee Simpson, Hilary Duff, and Lindsay Lohan. First Breathe single "About You" is a prime example, as the jangly pop tune could pass as the Christian alternative to Simpson's own "Pieces of Me," or the long-lost cousin of Lavigne's wet-behind-the-ears smash "Complicated." The track is nothing new—even the "it's-not-about-me" theme of the track sounds a bit clichéd—but I guess it works for listeners not attuned to pop culture.
Elsewhere on the album, the pseudo rock of Disney debutante Lohan gets a nod in "Let It Out," which also boasts fuzzy guitars and top-of-the-lungs chorusing, not unlike (once again) Simpson's non-hit "La La." Hilary Duff too gets a bit of primetime with "Reason to Live," a simple, breezy pop tune tune that recalls Duff's single "Come Clean."
When they're not referencing other underage divas, the group turns to itself for inspiration. "Scream" sounds like the "Unbroken" (off Different Kind of Free) of this album, a grand, ultra-melodic ballad that speaks boldly to teens who cut themselves in order to channel their inner fears. Worshipful semi-rocker "Forevermore" is a rewiring of the group's own "Beautiful Name," both in arrangement and speed. "Not the One" is a thematic revisiting of "Dismissed," a one-way dialog where the girls tell their no-good love interests to take a hike. And the aforementioned "Reason to Live" is not too dissimilar from many of the group's "mission statement" songs ("I Believe," "With All of My Heart").
That's not to say the set doesn't have a few knockout, original numbers. Despite its somewhat embarrassing lyrics, the Mark Heimermann-produced "Dead Serious" is a terrific pop song. "Skin Deep" is a smooth, nicely written ode to self-worth based around acoustic strums and an uncommon melody. And, despite its campiness, "Let It Out" still works as a fun, slumber-party-pillow-fight-type romp.
Ultimately, the thing that's most noticeably absent from Room to Breathe is a willingness to try new things. Their first foray into girlie rock a couple of years back was a welcome one because it happened right along with their mainstream counterparts. Not only that, but Different Kind of Free was all over the place stylistically, with bits of synth-pop, urban, and disco gracing many of the tracks. By contrast, Room to Breathe is a bit too comfortable, in the same way that the copious Avril Lavigne clones of today are too comfortable. Additionally, though teen girls are the group's target audience, they don't need a "mission statement" song or a "bad boy" song or a "girl power" song on every album. Teens do appreciate introspection, transparency, and variety, so an effort where the girls of ZOE lay their hearts (as opposed to their listeners') on the line would perhaps be more impactful. ZOEgirl may be allowing themselves room to breathe, all right, although in practice the project is gasping for a bit of the growth from efforts past.