|Personnel: Brad Paisley (acoustic guitar, electric guitar, banjo, mandolin, programming, background vocals); Gary Hooker (acoustic guitar, electric guitar, 6-string bass); Randle Currie (dobro); Kendall Marcy (banjo, piano, organ, keyboards, percussion, programming, background vocals); Justin Williamson (mandolin, fiddle, viola, cello); Ben Sesar (drums); Kenny Lewis (background vocals).
|If Brad Paisley signaled a tentative stylistic retreat via the title of 2011's This Is Country Music, the name of its 2013 sequel, Wheelhouse, is a fake-out. By no means is he returning to familiar territory here; he's stepping far outside his "Southern Comfort Zone," as Paisley puts it on the record's first single. There, he admits how he misses his Tennessee home but he's seen the ways he's grown and never would have seen the world without leaving what he already knew, a kind of self-evident truth that passes for a major revelation in the polarized world of 2013, where residents of both red and blue states are very happy within the confines of their county. Paisley has taken it upon himself to narrow the gap between city and country and, in that sense, Wheelhouse in general and "Southern Comfort Zone" in particular are cousins of sorts to his multi-cultural paean "American Saturday Night," only blown up to an international scale. Throughout the album, Paisley finds something to celebrate in every little corner of the world, or at the very least, the countries where his career has taken him. He titles an instrumental in Chinese, he writes a very English character sketch in "Harvey Bodine" (shades of the Kinks, or even Blur's "Ernold Same"), the Mona Lisa moves him to write a love song, and he rhapsodizes about "Karate," which a battered woman uses to exact revenge on her abuser. "Karate" is one of those tricky juggling acts Paisley pulls off with grace; another is "Those Crazy Christians," where he admires faith while harboring doubts of his own, never taking potshots at those who believe -- but there are times on Wheelhouse where Paisley simply has too many balls in the air and they're destined to fall. They come crashing down on "Accidental Racist," a well-intentioned attempt to get good ol' boys to reconsider the perspective of African-Americans undone by on-the-nose lyrics by Paisley and guest rapper LL Cool J, whose presence is simultaneously admirable and heavy-handed. Other odd grace notes abound, ranging from the too-dense spoken sample collage and "Dixie" interpolation on "Southern Comfort Zone," to the choice to bring both Mat Kearney and Charlie Daniels in as rappers, leaving teen heartthrob Hunter Hayes to play guitar and Eric Idle to sing. Paisley houses all these quirks underneath a looming cloud of arena rock atmospherics borrowed from U2, then accentuates everything with shouted harmonies laid on way too thickly, an expansive, ambitious production that remains admirable even with when it's unsuccessful. Usually, Wheelhouse suffers when the cross-cultural ambition is too great -- the wickedly funny "Oustanding in Our Field" samples Roger Miller and features a sly Dierks Bentley cameo, two moves so natural they wind up illustrating the labor that lies elsewhere -- but when Paisley does pull it all together, as he does on "Karate" or the joyous "Beat This Summer" (as effervescent a song as he's ever cut), the results are so good they wind up proving his point that more country singers should step outside their wheelhouse. ~ Stephen Thomas Erlewine