Blocking the New Kids

New Kids on the Block had a bunch of hits, enough to mount a reunion arena tour launching this weekend in Toronto and Montreal, only the fact remains that those original songs weren’t very good. When their airplay fortunes peaked in 1990 with the ultra-cynical “Step By Step,” Donnie Wahlberg was sporting a Public Enemy T-shirt in the video, as if he wished he were trading verses with Flavor Flav. At least Steven Page felt their pain, channeling it into the Barenaked Ladies tune “New Kid (On the Block),” the voice of a 23-year-old feeling trapped in the boy band closet for the sake of a lunch box.

When the quintet tried their first comeback, two years after stumbling, the ballad “If You Go Away” was stealthily credited to “NKOTB.” The album that followed in 1994, Face the Music, contemplated the prospect of a long-haul — yet the only audience left were high school girls feeling nostalgic for sixth grade.

A determination to bring new and improved material to the stage resulted in a new New Kids disc, The Block, whose reviews overlook one indisputable truth — never before has a group that started in their teens made an album in their mid-to-late- 30s that is better than all the stuff they became known for in the first place.

And no shortage of credits for the effort are given due to a 32-year-old Toronto native, Adam Messinger.

“Back then I think they were more focused on how many girls they were going to meet backstage than anything going on in the recording studio,” he says. “I’m sure their parents encouraged them to stick with it and do what they were told, in order to make money. And it must have been really exciting for a while, but no one was ever thinking those songs would be considered an artistic statement.

“They approached this new album as their shot to rewrite the New Kids legacy.”

The vision was shaped after Wahlberg’s discovery of a song by Nasri Atweh, which fell into his hands through a channel of music attorneys. Nasri had spent the past few years trying to find his niche as a recording artist beyond the confines of a Canadian industry none too friendly to nuanced rhythmic pop.

Messinger had been collaborating with Nasri in Toronto, and the two relocated separately to Los Angeles. When it was determined that Nasri’s “Click Click Click” (see below) would be a perfect opener for the NKOTB comeback, they were summoned together to the studio. com/watch? v=K7hbZp2N4C0

Growing up as a musical prodigy in North York, the New Kids on the Block were the last group Messinger was likely to listen to. What he felt early on, however, was a craving to interpret his own cultural zeitgeist.

“I was being taught songs on the piano that were 200 years old or more,” he says, “but I wanted to play the soundtracks of Ghostbusters and Footloose.” While enrolled in the Claude Watson School for the Arts from age 10, adding other instruments to his repertoire, Messinger started playing Guns N’ Roses and Led Zeppelin covers in teen bands that were essentially the opposite of NKOTB.

When he made it to the jazz program at York University, prog-rock became his sideline obsession, exercised in a series of battle-of-the- bands competitions around town. A band he played bass for, OPM (“Other People’s Mothers”) described themselves as a hybrid of Faith No More, Alice in Chains and the Beatles when they came in second place in the Q107 Homegrown contest in 1997.

Winning a few different rounds of studio time, though, supplied Messinger with the realization that the software coming on the market at the time allowed him to be more efficient by recording entirely on his own — and maybe even help him earn a few quick bucks.

The big break involved working with a company that offered custom cover versions, with lyrics re-written to commemorate a special occasion. “These were Britney Spears and Shania Twain songs in honour of weddings, bar mitzvahs, birthdays,” he explains. “So, like, ‘Mambo No. 5’ became ‘Mambo No. 35’”

Then along came a few production credits Messinger could attach his name to, trading up from a capella group Cadence and Christian rap-rocker Manafest to Ivana Santilli and The Nylons. More networking led to writing, producing and playing on the album by the 2006 Canadian Idol winner, Eva Avila. All the while, his pal Nasri was still trying to figure out how to position himself as something better than a minor-league CanCon carbon-copy of Justin Timberlake.

“You would see a major label in Toronto trying to break somebody like Shawn Desman,” says Messinger, “and they couldn’t succeed. The songs could even be the same calibre as an American, but there’s one-tenth the population — and one-tenth the budget.”

To take a genuine run at this genre, then, Messinger did the most sensible thing anyone could do with their Canadian Idol paycheque: a relocation to Hollywood.

“The adverse effect of being able to distribute your own music on the internet is that it’s made it impossible to get noticed in certain circles,” he says. “For what I was trying to do, even the smallest amount of face-time makes a big difference.”

And once the self-started New Kids project was taken on by power broker Jimmy Iovine of Interscope Records, the affiliations started accelerating for Messinger. By virtue of his work on The Block — where his most common credit is the somewhat ambiguous “vocal producer” — his resumé now extends to the younger generation of chart-topping guest stars featured on the album, including the current drive to get Top 40 airplay for the new single, “Single,” featuring a sixth New Kid: Ne-Yo.

Calculated collaborations aside, it genuinely sounds like the three NKOTB vocalists — 39-year-old Donnie Wahlberg, 38-year-old Jordan Knight and 35-year-old Joey McIntyre — were determined to shape this revived act as a reflection of their own personalities, even if no guy in their age bracket would voluntarily watch them dust off their old dance routines on the reunion tour.

“Their life experience obviously factors into the dynamic,” says Messinger. “But there was some tension, too. Joey and Jordan had tried doing their own separate things for a while, and yet Donnie took on a leadership role — he’s the one who drove the ship and called the shots, even if he eventually let them have their say.

“The most impressive thing is that they stuck to it, because they didn’t know that anyone would even be interested in hearing the album once it was out there.”

The Block debuted at the top of the Canadian album chart last week — and it entered at No. 2 on the Billboard 200, behind Young Jeezy. The pre-album single, “Summertime,” similarly fared better on the airwaves around here. Not a blockbuster, but enough to make the New Kids contemporary contenders.

Concurrent with its release, Messinger and Nasri Atweh had a tune placed on the recent album by High School Musical starlet Vanessa Hudgens, which put them in the company of the wave of thirtysomething names commissioned for every would-be Radio Disney staple of the past decade: Antonina Armato, Cathy Dennis, Kara DioGuardi, “Dr. Luke” Gottwald and, the most influential of the bunch, Max Martin.

These two dudes from Toronto will also contribute to forthcoming albums by chanteuse Marina Chello, a female group originally assembled on the German version of Popstars dubbled No Angels, and the psychologically complex tweenybopper icon JoJo.

However, the most intriguing assignment they received to date will take a bit longer to surface. Can they really help reinvent the image of Michael Bolton?

“He’s the most well-preserved 55-year-old I’ve ever met,” says Messinger. “And he beckoned me — I was hounded in the middle of the night to work with him.

“Really, it was just a matter of gaining enough experience to be considered the right guy who could help bring some quote-unquote musicality to the project. And he knows who his market is — all he needs to do is make a phone call to get on Oprah or The View, except he also wants to make sure that it’s packaged right.”

Between the former chart fixtures seeking a comeback, and pipeline of prefab acts, Messinger is positioned to be part of the supply chain for a while yet. They hope to get Nasri’s solo career off the ground, eventually, although Bolton reminded them that he also spent a few years in the background, writing hits for other people, until the timing was right to headline as himself.

But how many would-be hit records can one man help create without wondering if those ideas haven’t previously been written?

“It’s a very fine line,” he says, “because the challenge usually involves incorporating an element that sounds instantly familiar.

“And yet, it also can’t sound like something that anyone has ever heard before.”