"Honkytonk University"

Dreamworks Nashville


"There's More Where That Came From"

MCA Nashville

Too talented to dismiss, too knuckleheaded to embrace, Toby Keith remains one of the most frustrating figures in American music today. He has one of the great country voices of his generation, and every once in a while he connects with a song that allows him to show just how insightful and powerful his singing can be. More often, however, he uses his talent like a blunt instrument, banging on the most obvious cliches in Nashville.

His new album, "Honkytonk University," illustrates the problem. It begins with the autobiographical title track, a string of boasts and complaints set to country rock so generic it could have been bought off the shelf. That's followed by two cartoonish, middle-aged male fantasies, "As Good as I Once Was" and "Just the Guy to Do It," and two stale-joke, kiss-off songs, "Knock Yourself Out" and "You Ain't Leavin' (Thank God Are Ya)."

But near the end of the disc, he sings a trio of broken-relationship ballads ("I Got It Bad," "Where You Gonna Go" and "You Caught Me at a Bad Time") with the kind of understated nuance that liberates his honeyed tone and emotional reserves. And he holds his own with Merle Haggard on the wistful duet "She Ain't Hooked on Me No More."

Keith should take his cue from Lee Ann Womack, a country star who has recovered from her own compromises with cliches to release one of the best honky-tonk albums of the decade, "There's More Where That Came From." Womack, too, has misused one of the great country voices of our time, but on her new album she rescues a neglected country subgenre, the cheating song, and in mining its veins of guilt and pleasure rescues her own career as well.

Womack is the rare singer who can capture paradox in a four-minute single. She can confess a lingering lust for an ex-husband and at the same time acknowledge that "I May Hate Myself in the Morning." She can describe a husband confessing an affair over the kitchen sink and convey the subtle notion that his apology is too "Painless" to be believed. She can pray for God to "get this cheating off my mind" on the title track, but when she gets that inevitable phone call from her lover, she realizes her conscience is no match for her desire.

-- Geoffrey Himes

Appearing Saturday at the Nissan Pavilion.