According to the conventional wisdom, country singer Faith Hill's denim-to-diamonds Hollywood makeover Went Too Far when she took a small role in the big-budget train wreck "The Stepford Wives." Hill's convincing portrayal of a toothy blond robot alarmed longtime fans and confirmed everyone else's worst suspicions.
"Fireflies," Hill's first album since her 2002 multi-platinum pop confection "Cry," is a conspicuous sonic retrenchment, a glossy, countrified hair shirt packed with pointed references to the singer's Mississippi upbringing and her love of cutoff overalls and baseball caps.
Some of the changes are merely cosmetic (Hill recently dyed her hair brown, as if to convey a seriousness of purpose -- insert your back-to-her-roots joke here), some are structural: "Fireflies," despite a thick layer of Nashville shellac, is populated with ostensibly gritty ballads about alcoholics and neglected housewives, and extravagantly seeded with banjos, mandolins and dobros. It's good frothy fun, despite its occasionally somber subject matter, and despite the fact that Hill is as unconvincing singing about "Boys breakneckin' till they're nearly wreckin' " (on the pro forma good-time opener "Sunshine and Summertime") as she is singing about riding public transportation ("The Lucky One").
You probably won't buy Hill's mid-career reversion any more than she does, but she seems like she wants to mean it. Lead single "Mississippi Girl" (co-written, as were several tracks here, by John Rich of Big and Rich) is a sprightly apologia/biographical sketch that charts Hill's flirtation with, and eventual rejection of, big-city ways. ("They put my face on the big movie screen / But that don't mean I've forgotten where I came from," goes one reassuring couplet. "That's just me chasing dreams.")
Hill has one of country-pop's most agile voices, and she excels at meaty ballads like "Stealing Kisses," one of several tracks written by Lori McKenna, the only contributor able to dial down Hill's perkiness.
But Hill, who doesn't write her own material, is only as good as her songwriters, who sometimes provide an extra helping of schlock. This is most notable on "We've Got Nothing but Love to Prove," a roundabout indictment of U.S. involvement in Iraq ("I hear the drums of war / They are a-changing / And everybody's getting in the groove"). It's baffling and mild, but coming from the usually risk-averse Hill, it might as well be "Blowin' in the Wind."
Hill is too busy shoring up her country-girl bona fides to take many other chances on "Fireflies." But despite her just-folks contortions, her career probably wasn't in much danger. Nashville purists, who hadn't had much truck with Hill since her early, pre-Tim McGraw days, weren't hers to lose, and she remains without any significant rivals in the Nashville diva category (Gretchen Wilson isn't glamorous enough, and Shania Twain tries too hard).
But to listen to "Fireflies" is to witness Hill effortlessly threading the needle. It's just pop enough to satisfy the crossover fans attracted by "Cry," and just country enough, in its bubbly way, to satisfy mainstream country fans. "Fireflies" may not be traditional in even the remotest sense, but it's the best country album ever to come out of Beverly Hills.