A week ago, to no one's surprise, Brooks & Dunn won their eighth straight Country Music Award as best duo/group. It's unlikely that Kix Brooks and Ronnie Dunn, who perform Saturday at Nissan Pavilion, will ever effect a make-over as dramatic as fellow country superstar Garth Brooks does on his "Chris Gaines" project, but the two have done some tweaking on their sixth studio album, "Tight Rope" (Arista).
Notably, they've cut back on the honky-tonk swagger that's long been central to their sound. The only chug-along anthem among the album's 13 tracks is "Beer Thirty," a rollicking albeit predictable celebration of blue-collar folks with "a jones for the moan of a jukebox," and whose clock-watching is decidedly one-dimensional: "it's beer thirty, a honky-tonk time." The song works mostly because it features an energized vocal from Ronnie Dunn, one of the most convincing and soulful singers in country and clearly the better singer in this particular partnership.
The album's only other up-tempo track is Brooks's plodding heartache-by-the-numbers complaint, "Temptation #9." Brooks is much more effective on the western-style narrative "Texas and Norma Jean," a bittersweet rumination on a long-ago encounter between two drifters, one "on her way to better things" with "a California dream," the other now back home, "trying to sort it out one fence post at a time." There's a tenderness and emotion in Brooks's voice here that's often lacking in more mundane material like "I Love You More," a self-pitying message to a former lover with paranoid echoes of "Every Breath You Take."
The bulk of "Tight Rope" addresses relationships, celebrating those that survive--the simplistic but sweet "You'll Always Be Loved by Me" and "Can't Stop My Heart"--but more often lamenting those that have gone bad. Again, it's usually Dunn's voice that puts these songs over so convincingly. They include "Goin' Under Gettin' Over You," where a hard, angry ache is palpable when Dunn sings "It's gonna tear me apart if I let it/ I should just move on and forget it/ But, I'm goin' under gettin' over you"; "Too Far This Time," in which trespasses are unforgiven and regrets come far too late; the exhausted "All Out of Love"; and the slow-burning soulfulness of "Hurt Train."
"Tight Rope" features a new co-producer, Byron Gallimore (Tim McGraw, Faith Hill), but while he smoothes out some of the rough edges, Gallimore wisely leaves the duo's core sound intact. On their last album, Brooks & Dunn scored a No. 1 country hit with a remake of B.W. Stevenson's '70s pop hit "My Maria." This time they move to the early '80s with a cover of John Waite's "Missing You." That song might not seem a likely candidate for a country transfusion, but Dunn pulls it off beautifully, turning the supple pop song into a classic tear-stained country plaint.
(To hear a free Sound Bite from this album, call Post-Haste at 202-334-9000 and press 8151.)
Montgomery Gentry: 'Tattoos & Scars'
One of the groups that lost out to Brooks & Dunn at the Country Music Awards was Montgomery Gentry. Consisting of Eddie Montgomery and Troy Gentry, the duo has made an impressive debut with "Tattoos & Scars" (Columbia). Unlike Brooks & Dunn (for whom they'll open at Nissan), Montgomery Gentry deftly mixes honky-tonk and traditional country with hard-driving Southern rock in the manner of the Marshall Tucker Band, the Georgia Satellites and Charlie Daniels, who shows up to fiddle and vocalize on the raucous "All Night Long."
Gentry and Montgomery (younger brother of John Michael Montgomery) don't write, but they've made excellent song choices, beginning with the first single, "Hillbilly Shoes," a rollicking, guitar-driven declaration of country pride in which they challenge folks to withhold lifestyle judgments "till you walk a while, a country mile, in my hillbilly shoes." There's more defiant pride to the fiddle-powered "Daddy Won't Sell the Farm," which rails against creeping urban encroachment: "You can't pull roots when they run that deep/ He's gonna live and die in the eye of an urban storm."
There's plenty of romantic travail as well, from the classic, Merle Haggard-style "I've Loved a Lot More Than I've Hurt" and "Trying to Survive" to the sad-to-the-bone self-recriminations of "Self Made Man" and "Lonely and Gone," in which a man returns to an empty house, "silent as a tomb." As for the title track, it poignantly recounts a smoky encounter between a restless, rootless youngster and an older barroom denizen who offers some much-needed perspective.
(To hear a free Sound Bite from this album, call Post-Haste at 202-334-9000 and press 8152.)
CAPTION: Kix Brooks, right, and Ronnie Dunn, toning down the honky-tonk swagger on "Tight Rope."