CD Reviews: Rascal Flatts' 'Unstoppable' & Billy Ray Cyrus's 'Back to Tennessee'

Rascal Flatts, shown performing at Nissan Pavilion last year, presents the usual soggy ballads with irresistible charm on "Unstoppable."
Rascal Flatts, shown performing at Nissan Pavilion last year, presents the usual soggy ballads with irresistible charm on "Unstoppable." (By Leah L. Jones For The Washington Post)
By Allison Stewart
Special to The Washington Post
Tuesday, April 7, 2009

The money-minting, three-man band Rascal Flatts makes albums that are the country-music equivalent of Nicholas Sparks novels. Its new disc, the ominously titled "Unstoppable," is both irresistible and exasperating, armed to the teeth with soggy ballads whose gut-wrenching power is matched only by their shamelessness.

Musically, "Unstoppable" offers no great advance on the usual Rascal Flatts formula: Most songs start out slow and thoughtful, and end in loud, rousing choruses. But Rascal Flatts is famous for its love of melodrama, and "Unstoppable" stacks the deck: Lost love. Suicide. Absentee fathers. Weddings that never were. "Unstoppable" would be a lot more moving if it didn't try so hard.

The band's devotion to the obvious, its insistence that every opening verse be a flashing neon sign -- Bathos Ahead -- suggests a fundamental lack of faith in its audience. It doesn't help that the trio has enlisted a battalion of high-class hands (like "American Idol" judge Kara DioGuardi) to wring every last drop of woe from what would otherwise be a pretty solid set of songs.

"Love Who You Love" wraps "Love the One You're With"-type bromides in a monster hook. The nicely done "Forever" is a mournful breakup song, which means it's the Rascal Flatts equivalent of a layup. "Things That Matter" is an inspirational ballad (though they all are, pretty much) that hints at the widening gulf between the platinum-times-infinity trio and their listeners: When they awkwardly describe the workaday life of the song's protagonist ("Five o'clock he's the last one out of the gate/And he gets cut off/Flipped off/Ticked off/Out on the interstate"), they sound as if they're observing a zoo animal in its habitat. Meanwhile, the hero of "Holdin' On" can't bring himself to part with a lipstick-stained Mountain Dew can rattling around his pickup truck, all that he has left of his departed girlfriend. Her absence is never explained, but this is a Rascal Flatts song. She's probably dead.

Back in the early '90s, Billy Ray Cyrus helped popularize an ornerier, more muscular version of the Eagles-inspired country rock Rascal Flatts is taking to the bank. In the years following his infamous hit "Achy Breaky Heart," Cyrus became a Christian singer, an actor and a trivia question before seeing his career rebooted thanks to the success of his daughter Miley, an experience that, if you read between the lyrics on his new disc, "Back to Tennessee," appears to be as unsettling as it is gratifying.

"Tennessee" starts off with a fusillade of strident twang rock tracks before finding its footing with a seriously good cover of Sheryl Crow's "Real Gone" and "Butterfly Fly Away," a nicely restrained duet with Miley that plays like a less drippy version of "Butterfly Kisses."After spending the past few years as a TV star in the Valley, Cyrus seems eager to reestablish his hillbilly bona fides ("Great big town/So full of users," he grouses on the title track, presumably referring to Hollywood. "Make a million, still a loser"). This explains both the pandering ballad "Country as Country Can Be," with its countless references to NASCAR, pickup trucks, God and the flag, and the slightly goony "Thrillbilly," which seems like a parody of a redneck anthem, but probably isn't.


Rascal Flatts: "Love Who You Love," "Forever"

Billy Ray Cyrus: "Give It to Somebody," "Real Gone"

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