I'll admit that I didn't expect to like this release nearly as much as I do. I assumed that it would be catchy-yet-indistinct middle-of-the-road country-inflected pop. And though it is catchy, and it does drive a bit towards the centerline, there's a tremendous amount of heart and craft, with vocals that are a lot more country than pop. The band's new producer, Justin Niebank, streamlined their sound, allowing the electric guitars to soar, but reducing the overall instrumental footprint (particularly the drums) in a way that keeps from obliterating the vocals.
There's no mistaking that this came from Nashville, but not the sort of factory product one would expect from such high-flying hitmakers. The opener rings with twin acoustic guitars and moving vocal harmonies that sound a bit like The Delevantes, underlining the album's thesis statement: home is where the heart is. The songs lack the sort of drama, strife and hard-times one normally associates with country music, opting instead to essay the comforts of family, friends, work and living in a close-knit community. The few minor traumas - the singer's wandering eye and late poker night in "Doghouse" - are more "aw, shucks" than "oh, no!"
Introspective songs and societal observations like "I Am a Man" and "Noise" carry some of the flavor of Rodney Crowell's recent trilogy of albums, if perhaps not the philosophical depth, and "Wild," though a bit perfunctory in the lyrics department, has a nice bit of '70s grit in the playing. The album sticks mostly to mid-tempo numbers, with ballads that include the warm romance of "Two Bottles of Beer," and the sprightly bluegrass closer, "When I Go Home Again." This is an exceptionally pleasant album, smoothed out for the mainstream's listening pleasure, but much more than another flavorless cookie from Nashville's bakery. 3-1/2 stars, if allowed fractional ratings. [©2005 hyperbolium dot com]