Keith Urban recorded two Rodney Crowell songs on his last album and a third on his new disc, "Be Here." Urban, who has graduated to superstar status over the past two years, clearly models his music on Crowell's 1980s country-pop -- that beguiling blend of punchy rhythms, Beatlesque harmonies, string-band touches and personal confession. "Be Here" isn't that good, but it's close enough to stand out in the bland soundscape of today's country radio.
Urban's tenor voice is as personable as it is powerful. When he grabs hold of a pop hook as infectious as the one on the mandolin-driven "Days Go By," already a No. 1 country hit, or the one on the banjo-embellished "Better Life," he's hard to resist. The lyrics on those tunes are simplistic, but they are redeemed by Urban's anthemic vocals and by the propulsive momentum of the production by Urban and Dann Huff. But when he tackles a more nuanced lyric -- as he does on Crowell's "Making Memories of Us," and on Matraca Berg's "Nobody Drinks Alone" -- Urban reveals a newfound subtlety and intimacy. If he pursues that approach, he may yet match his role model someday.
Tony Brown, who co-produced Crowell's biggest hits, co-produced the debut album "Katrina Elam," and Urban plays banjo on one cut. Elam, barely out of her teens, possesses a powerhouse voice, but she tends to use it as a blunt instrument, hammering the up-tempo tunes and putting a vise squeeze on the ballads. She co-wrote nine of the 11 songs, but her melodies tend to be as predictable as her lyrics, whether it's the party-by-the-numbers "I Want a Cowboy" or the weep-by-the-numbers "Flowers by the Side of the Road."
-- Geoffrey Himes
Appearing Tuesday at the Patriot Center. * To hear a free Sound Bite from Keith Urban, call Post-Haste at 301-313-2200 and press 8125; to hear Katrina Elam, press 8127. (Prince William residents, call 703-690-4110.)