MUSIC REVIEWS: `High School Musical 2' soundtrack, Matt Nathanson

VARIOUS ARTISTS `High School Musical 2' Cast recording (Disney) 2 stars

The Disney music machine has been a monster operation in recent years. From the productive halls of Mickey Mouse headquarters has emerged a legion of the era's pop heavyweights - figures such as Britney Spears, Christina Aguilera, Justin Timberlake and Hilary Duff.

Few recent Disney projects, though, have scaled the heights achieved by "High School Musical," the TV movie that spawned an array of related projects geared to teens and tweens. The accompanying soundtrack of squeaky clean dance-pop was the stealth smash of `06: Quietly debuting on the bottom reaches of Billboard's chart, it eventually found the No. 1 spot, moved more than 3 million copies and became the year's top record.

In a kids' entertainment industry teeming with releases, "High School Musical" - time-tested bubble gum with a modern feel - has been described by some parents as the one CD they can tolerate for extended stretches. So it may be a combination of dread and relief that greets the disc's sequel, another 10-song batch of focus-grouped teen pop.

If the new album sounds a lot like the not-so-old one, there's a reason for that. Striking while the iron is hot, "HSM2" enlists the same songwriting and production team to construct these peppy tracks. The cast, led by Zac Efron and Vanessa Hudgens, remains intact, as do the timeless teen themes: first crushes, summer breaks, the jocks-making-nice-with-the-geeks. There are touches of the hip-hop-tinged, midriff-baring dance sound that dominates today's singles charts, but it has been run through a Disney processor that filters out the menace while preserving the energy.

Upbeat songs such as "What Time Is It?" and "Fabulous" are slathered with infectious melody, while the requisite ballads ("Everyday," "You Are the Music in Me") ensure that the tempo stays brisk enough to indulge seventh-grade attention spans. It's all so polished - slick arrangements, shiny harmonies, vocals digitally buffed to perfection - the songs threaten to slip off the disc.

Absolutely nothing about "High School Musical 2" spells high art, but as far as chintzy, catchy pop goes, you might as well call the album a masterpiece. And it's a sure bet that come year's end, Disney accountants will be saying the same.

- Brian McCollum


MATT NATHANSON "Some Made Hope" (Vanguard) 3 stars

There's not much in the way of studio gimmicks or elaborate production techniques on this pop-rocker's second major label effort, his sixth studio album overall. With his strong, passionate voice and heart-on-sleeve lyrics, Nathanson doesn't need any special tricks to reach an audience.

Born in Massachusetts but nowadays a resident of San Francisco, Nathanson is quite the cut-up in concert, but on "Same Mad Hope," he stays on the serious side with tunes that deal with love in all its crazy glory. Sometimes it's love that smacks you upside the head ("Car Crash") and sometimes it's love that's pure intoxication ("Come On Get Higher"), but Nathanson always delivers his songs with a level of irony-free sincerity that's engagingly fresh and of the moment.

"Bullet Proof Weeks" and "All We Are" lean more to the quieter, folkier side and are both especially beautiful, with Nathanson's tender vocals reminiscent of Ryan Adams and Dave Matthews.

-Martin Bandyke