Garth Brooks is back with his first release of "new" material since 2001's "Scarecrow." (Truth in advertising, his "The Ultimate Hits," which actually is part of the new box set, included four new songs back in 2007). And it's quite an undertaking - four CDs of covers - Country Classics, Classic Rock, Blue-Eyed Soul and Melting Pot, an amalgam of country, rock, soul and folk; the two-CD set, "The Ultimate Set" and a DVD of his live performance in Vegas.
For Brooks, all of these styles helped make him the artist that he is today and all the more understandable as to why he was the bridge between a more traditional brand of country and the pop country heard today. Brooks was criticized by traditionalists for selling out country and opting for more of a rock sound a good 15, 20 years ago. Truth be told, he knew his way around an old school song with ease, and it shows here as well as the Country Classics is by far the most worthy of the four. He showcases that on such songs as a cover of Merle Haggard's Tonight the Bottle Let Me Down or Buck Owens' Act Naturally. The best song of all may be his duet with wife Trisha Yearwood on After the Fire is Gone, a song from Loretta Lynn and Conway Twitty.
But the problem is that too many songs on too many of the covers discs make it sound far more like Brooks as a karaoke act. He often takes what seems to be pretty much the original music of the songs, re-records it and tacks his vocals onto the material. More importantly, Brooks has nothing on the originals time after time. Understandably, for example, Brooks is not lay a glove on Marvin Gaye's version of I Heard It Through the Grapevine.
Brooks' take on Jerry Lee Lewis' Great Balls of Fire is close to cringe-worthy as is George Jones' White Lightning. The same is true on the non-country material, such as Stevie Wonder's Superstition, Rod Stewart's Maggie May. If you're not going to put your own stamp on the songs instead of merely being reverential, what's the point?
A booklet describes Brooks' connection with the songs. He leaves little doubt that the songs are near and dear to him, but that doesn't mean more - or in this case, the kitchen sink - is necessarily better.