Try This

In her own way, Pink is more punk than what passes for punk these days. First she was a white R&B singer at a time when black radio had closed its doors to white artists. Then she turned her back on that world, going rock & roll with Dallas Austin, a mainstream R&B producer, and Linda Perry, a lesbian rocker dismissed as a has-been when her group 4 Non Blondes split. Pink's multiplatinum 2001 breakthrough, Missundaztood, was a bold, Madonna-worthy makeover — not because of its switch in styles but because the frustrated singer abandoned shallow waters for a lyrical and musical depth that pop ordinarily denies.

For the follow-up, Try This, Pink teams up for nine of her third album's fourteen tracks with Tim Armstrong of Rancid, who brings along Blink-182 drummer Travis Barker as well as fellow Rancid members Matt Freeman and Lars Frederiksen. It's a minor coup for Pink to snag musicians so staunchly anti-establishment as the Rancid crew, and when it comes to writing hits, Armstrong is a far bigger risk than Perry ever was.

Pink seems to be on autopilot through the first few tracks of Try This; she swaggers her way through insubstantial, predictable rants about going out on the town and battling emotionally challenged losers. "I'm trouble, yeah, trouble now/I'm trouble, y'all, I disturb my town," she brags in "Trouble," the first single, then rehashes familiar themes in "God Is a DJ": "I've been the girl, middle finger in the air." Tell us something we don't know, Pink.

She doesn't do that until the fifth cut, "Oh My God," where she gets into some girl-on-girl "kootchie-koo" action with potty-mouth rapper Peaches. Yet even this seems like a warm-up for the album's first unqualified winner, "Catch Me While I'm Sleeping," a languid, Prince-like ballad produced and co-written by Perry. Floating through a sitar-sparkled arrangement that's at once ornate and lighter than air, Pink inhabits the tune with a delivery that feels both effortless and vulnerable.

The same sense of realness that lets Pink show her soft, insecure side also leads her to some pop-diva playa-hating. In "Try Too Hard," another Perry-helmed winner, she takes on a wanna-be who tries to be "different" by copying the right people. Is it fellow Perry collaborator Christina Aguilera? Labelmate Avril Lavigne? "It's people like you that make me sick/I'm surrounded by you everywhere I look," Pink cries, changing the first "you" to a self-deprecating "us" for the final chorus. The strongest Armstrong contribution is the final, hidden track, "Hooker," where Pink takes on another clueless, possibly famous villain. It's the glee with which she delivers her put-downs that's so thrilling - Pink is so sexy when she's pissed.

That's the crux of the problem, and what makes her so punk. After Missundaztood, her choices were to repeat herself or to try more material outside her realm of expertise. She does a little of both on Try This, with mixed results. Armstrong's melodies are often too slight for her ample vocal talents, and the new targets for her wrath just aren't as compelling as, say, her dysfunctional family on Missundaztood's "My Vietnam." Like it or not, Pink is stuck with the crucial punk dilemma of how to grow up and make maturity matter. Whether she'll squander her rage or rise to the challenge remains to be seen.