Hear Me Out: Tim McGraw, Jewel

By Chris Azzopardi

Tim McGraw, 'Two Lanes of Freedom'

"Two Lanes of Freedom" is a significant departure for the country-music stud who's so brand new, his wardrobe now includes butt-hugging white pants. He takes advantage of this newfound liberation - he's officially free from Curb Records (his label home for two decades before recently signing with Big Machine for this outing) - and blends the grits-and-biscuit sound he's been angling for most of his career with a classic-rock edge and Coldplay histrionics. The climb during the "whoa, whoa" chorus of the big and propulsive title track is pure Byron Gallimore, the man responsible for such slick mainstream makeovers as Faith Hill's crossover "Breathe" and Sugarland's pop sound-behemoth "The Incredible Machine." Gallimore's glossy production on "Two Lanes of Freedom" is similarly chic on the atmospheric slow-builder "Friend of a Friend" and experimental "Southern Girl." Hawking them to a broader demographic with a definite push to capture the under-20 crowd who didn't grow up on McGraw's "Don't Take the Girl," the songs are so indicative of country music's Taylor Swift-ing that "Highway Don't Care" even features Taylor Swift. Get over the creepy fact that McGraw is twice her age and this desperate song of longing and love builds into a night-drive stunner. You can't fault Tim for wanting to appeal to the tweens, and this album is often successful at doing so, but the line about jamming out to Lil Wayne during the alpha-male twanger "Truck Yeah"? That's one step too far. Grade: B-

Jewel, 'Greatest Hits'

When Jewel Kilcher found her place among the pop-diva and gangsta sounds of the mid-'90s, she had two things going for her: a harrowing story of survival and songs that could (and would) reach the masses. It was with 1995's "Pieces of You" - her debut, a powerhouse that produced three of her career's biggest singles - that Jewel became a bona fide singer-songwriter success, selling in excess of 12 million copies. Over nearly 20 years, she's gone from straight-up folkie to dance siren sellout and, finally, country darling - the natural progression of which is evident during this all-inclusive "Greatest Hits," the musician's first collection. Career-launchers like "Who Will Save Your Soul" and "Foolish Games," not the original album version but the slicker commercial single (Kelly Clarkson adds power-ballad vocals on an intense bonus take), are her origins, except Jewel refused to stay on the sensitive singer-songwriter train. The breakthrough to achieving complete country-girl status - a gradual evolution noticeable via the alt-rockish "Standing Still" and cinched with the total immersion of "Stronger Woman" - was a more authentic folk-sound extension than the dance direction taken on "0304." But "Intuition" still has a place here, if only to remind you of the feminine hygiene product it became associated with. The album's genre-ambiguous Top 40-sounding new single, "Two Hearts Breaking," doesn't forebode Jewel's future, but why would it? Her hands, they are her own, and she'll do whatever she wants with them. Grade: B+

Also Out

The Deer Tracks, 'The Archer Trilogy Pt. 3'

The last installment of the Swedish duo's trilogy - released in three parts a la "Body Talk" - glistens with twitchy pop, icy lullabies and symphonic bursts of celestial bliss. Sound familiar? Of course it does. David Lehnberg and vocalist Elin Lindfors' aural schizophrenia is, essentially, Bjoerk pastiche done right - and it's immediately identifiable on "W," a frenetically built electro tonic. "Lazarus" exhilarates with soul-lifting spirit in the surging atmospherics, and "Explodion" is an aggressive knockout. These aren't just songs, but obsessions.

Nataly Dawn, 'How I Knew Her'

Don't let the sweet whimsy of Nataly Dawn's first solo outing fool you. The cutesy 26-year-old singer-songwriter - her duo Pomplamoose has covered Lady Gaga and Beyonce - uses coffeehouse charm and old-fashioned zing, but darkness looms underneath the veneer. She takes on death and religion with "Long Running Joke," but it sounds more like the grand-entrance theme for circus elephants. If Dawn could only bring the same seriousness to the surface of these songs, "How I Knew Her" might inspire more than a trip to Starbucks.

Chris Azzopardi is the editor of Q Syndicate, the international LGBT wire service. Reach him via his website at http://www.chris-azzopardi.com.

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