The Jonas Brothers--three adorable haircuts related by birth and a willingness to appear on any talk show that will have them--are the latest teen act to attempt to transcend cuteness and achieve a measure of credibility with people who have no interest in taking them to the prom. Every time a band tries this, someone at its record company invariably mentions the early-'60s Beatles--it could happen!--but that only serves to reinforce how long the odds are, and the Jonas Brothers have already made it tough on themselves. There is the fact that all three brothers wear purity rings and have forsworn the temptations of sex and drugs, which wipes out large swaths of potential songwriting material. Also, they are products of the famously regimented Disney media machine, and their appearances on Hannah Montana and starring roles in Camp Rock don't suggest any hidden expertise at plumbing the rougher edges of existence. Finally, look at them: How can anyone be expected to rock out to a band cuter than the Muppets?
That said--and the sound you hear is the reluctant swallowing of some primo critical bile--the Jonas Brothers are not bad. Pretty good, even. All 12 songs on their third album, A Little Bit Longer, are about girls, and they're evenly divided between hook-filled upbeat rockers and ballads that stop themselves on the tasteful side of treacle. What we learn from these tunes about the various Jonases--Nick, 15, writes most of the songs and sings, while Joe, 19, sings lead vocals and looks handsome, and Kevin, 20, plays guitar--is that they are as honorable as their bios. When they court (Lovebug), they court with good intentions. When they mess up (Sorry), they apologize. When they come back (Can't Have You), it's on hands and knees. Apparently some of the courting and crawling stems from young Nick's rumored past relationship with Miley Cyrus. Hey, there are people--most of the brothers' fan base, in fact--who might find that interesting.
Far more interesting is the fact that most of A Little Bit Longer is catchy as hell. The Jonases may be popular, good-looking kids, but they're as enthralled by the mechanics of power chords and three-part harmonies as the nerds in Weezer are. Burnin' Up, which opens with a steam kettle boiling over, never leaves the realm of goofiness but redeems itself with a flirtatious, ebullient hook and a lyric so innocent--"High heels/ Red dress/ All by yourself/ Gotta catch my breath!"--that you might even forgive them for letting their bodyguard lay down a rap verse in the middle. Lovebug floats on a gentle acoustic guitar line into a sweetly delivered chorus ("Now I'm speechless/ Over the edge I'm just breathless/ I never thought that I'd catch this love bug again") before exploding into a Boston-style guitar solo that they actually earn. The playing on these songs is big and precise, the singing joyful. None of it will surprise anyone with more than a dozen albums in their record collection, but then none of it will embarrass them either.
If there's anything that doesn't quite jibe about A Little Bit Longer, it's that the Jonases seem a little bit too comfortable making comfortable music. No one still harbors any illusions that rock musicians need to upset generational harmony, but the songs slot so neatly into the late-'70s template set by the Cars and Cheap Trick--and the Jonases are still so young--that it's easy to wonder if they're performing their own taste or that of their dad, who is also their co-manager. This may explain the presence of some weird banter at the beginning of songs and a few theatrically odd phrasings at the end of them: the brothers are desperate to assert they can be playful beneath the polish. So maybe they're not the Beatles. Or the Jackson 5. But they're a damn sight better than the Osmonds.