By Bill Friskics-Warren
Blake Shelton's second six-song EP of the year offers much the same mix of rowdy stomps and reflective ballads as its unapologetically down-home predecessor, "Hillbilly Bone." The carpe diem-themed title track is straight-ahead Southern rock; so is the Dobro-laced "Draggin' the River," a Lynyrd Skynyrd-inspired duet with Shelton's fiance, Miranda Lambert. "Got a Little Country," a neo-rockabilly boogie, features nimble jazz- and funk-inflected guitar.
Each of these up-tempo numbers is lively and amusing, due as much to Shelton's affable, self-deprecating persona as to Scott Hendricks's punchy, uncluttered production. Where the record really shines, though, is on the ballads, each of which reveals a depth of sensitivity rarely heard from the latter-day, Outlaw-identified male singers working on Nashville's Music Row.
"Pain is growing like a vine, strangled in my heart / When I think the worst is over, that's right when it starts," Shelton pines on "Suffocating," a lovelorn weeper steeped in heaving strains of steel guitar. Even better is the album's second single, an atmospheric ballad that opens with Shelton putting his lover on a pedestal, only to realize that there's a lot more to the woman than such two-dimensional treatment might suggest. "My, oh my, you're so good lookin'," he muses to himself, "but who are you when I'm not lookin'?"
A nod to the '70s heyday of Waylon and Willie, when Outlaws were more complex than macho cartoons, Shelton's latest "six pak" harks back to a time when Nashville rebels could be rowdy and real at the same time.
Recommended tracks: "Draggin' the River," "Who Are You When I'm Not Lookin' "