|Recording information: Blackbird Studios, Nashville, TN; Ocean Way, Nashville, TN; Sound Emporium, Nashville, TN; The Castle, Franklin, TN; The PoolHouse, Nashville, TN.
|Consciously backpedaling from the all-encompassing embrace of American Saturday Night, Brad Paisley narrows his definition of what constitutes modern country on his seventh collection of new songs, This Is Country Music. Gone are the casual multiculturalism, the allusions to the age of Obama, the subtle instrumental flourishes that suggested a world outside of country; whenever Paisley chooses to broaden the horizons on This Is Country Music, he brings in Don Henley to duet on a power ballad or kicks up the reverb for a bit of landbound surf-rock. From the album title right on down to a rousing tribute to "Old Alabama" -- a tribute so clever it seamlessly references a handful of the band's '80s hits, its chorus playfully inverting "Mountain Music," then enlists the group to sing the punch line -- Paisley celebrates the strict confines of country, gently bending its topical borders but adhering to country customs so strictly he even convinces Clint Eastwood to whistle a Morricone melody on a spaghetti Western instrumental tribute to the actor. Here's where Paisley's skills as a craftsman come into play. Always a traditionalist -- the kind who saluted the Grand Ol Opry by regularly having Bill Anderson and Little Jimmy Dickens come out to do some cornpone humor on his albums -- he builds a song with care but is keenly aware that he's living in 2011, not 1965. Even when he's determined to rein in his ambition, his music is rich and surprising. His silly novelties ("Camouflage" and "Be the Lake") are underpinned by a sly sense of humor not readily apparent on their hammy choruses; he has an eye for details, whether it's how a relationship builds ("Toothbrush") or how a soul erodes in this modern world ("A Man Don't Have to Die"); he opens the album by singing "You're not supposed to say the word cancer in a song," then breaks that very rule a few songs later; his twanging Telecaster may echo back to Don Rich, but is equally indebted to the shredders of the `80s. Paisley's determination to keep This Is Country Music lean and lanky does mean it's not as wily as his other records, but his consummate skill as a musician and big heart are always evident, always keeping things compelling. ~ Stephen Thomas Erlewine