Album introduces a new Tim McGraw

by Alison Bonaguro
Special to the Tribune

(The Chicago Tribune, Published March 29, 2007


Tim McGraw released a new album this week. Or rather, an album released a new Tim McGraw this week.

"Let It Go," McGraw's first studio album in three years, is by no means a repeat of his past 10 efforts. It's unbearably light on honky-tonk hits, yet Heavy on bittersweet ruminations of love, loss and nostalgia. And this new McGraw, who will turn 40 in a few weeks, bears no resemblance to the young hat act who sang about barbecue stains on his white T-shirt and riding his pony double.

This McGraw has matured, vocally and artistically. But as he has aged into a more seasoned force in country music, he may have parted ways with his never-grow-up charm. His challenge this time seemed to be making an album with a tune stack no 12-year-old girl would ever want on her iPod.

One of the standouts, "Train No. 10," is one McGraw co-wrote with close friends The Warren Brothers. It blurs the lines between country and soul, with a fair balance of instruments and vocals. The lyrical nod to an old Merle Haggard hit ("Here I am humming 'Misery and Gin'/ Waiting on train No. 10") reminds us that McGraw has influences outside the doors of Curb Records. But that no matter how cool he gets, he can't hide his redneck ability to rhyme gin with 10.

Even when he's not the writer, his ear for solid songs is evident on the piano-laced "Kristofferson." A genius take on getting the girl back, the lyrics threaten to "Open a bottle of 90 proof/And write a song for you/Like Kristofferson would do." It's a deep hook that could take off on country radio.

Other highlights include McGraw's sexy stamp on Eddie Rabbitt's 1979 No. 1 hit "Suspicions" and the a cappella harmony intro on the current single "Last Dollar (Fly Away)."

Like any album with 13 tracks, the luck runs out a couple of times. The vocals are not nearly gritty enough to improve on The Warren Brothers' own "Between the River and Me," a haunting tale of a boy's secret murder of his abusive stepfather. And "I Need You" is an expected and very cliche duet with wife Faith Hill. It sounds especially lackluster next to their collaboration on the swingy "Shotgun Rider," in which the fiddle and steel guitar get a chance to hog the limelight, and a man gets caught between the rodeo and a woman who promises to lie down beside him if he'd just come home.

The Dancehall Doctors, McGraw's eight-man band, do a stellar job backing him. But with a few exceptions,their sound gets lost behind McGraw's vocals. It's those vocals, though, that have sold 34 million albums and sung 26 No. 1 hits. So there's a method to their madness: Keep McGraw out front, and keep playing.

ctc-tempo@tribune.com Copyright 2007, Chicago Tribune

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