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Garth Brooks

Gunslinger – 2016 (Pearl)

Reviewed by Jeffrey B. Remz

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CDs by Garth Brooks

If naming your release "Gunslinger," you'd better let it rip and go for a harder country sound, especially if donning a black cowboy hat on the cover. The reality does not exactly match that sentiment for Garth Brooks, but at times he comes mighty close.

The high points for Brooks are the three most traditional country songs - a couple of honky tonkers ("Honky-Tonk Somewhere" and "Cowboys and Friends") and a ballad ("Whiskey to Wine"). Brooks gets the disc rolling with "Honky-Tonk Somewhere," a tried-and-true tonker that lives up to its title with lots of twang and country attitude that has little to do with what's au courant.

Neither does "Whiskey to Wine," a ballad penned by Bryan Kennedy (he also wrote "Honky-Tonk Somewhere") with strong backing vocals from Trisha Yearwood. The pedal steel imparts emotion into the love song.

The loping "Cowboys and Friends" bears a resemblance to "That Summer" with Brooks' strong vocals carrying a song of partying too hard with cowboys only to have to punch the clock the next morning.

Brooks is at his ballad best on "He Really Loves You" with tender, heartfelt vocals the wring emotion (not overemotion) from the material, strings and piano lurking in the background and the type of song befitting an onstage dedication to Yearwood if performed live.

Just when you think that Brooks is getting back to roots, he goes a bit reggae, a bit country (there's pedal steel) on "Weekend" with more emphasis on the former. It's upbeat, breezy and on the light side. Not bad, but Brooks has done better.

"Pure Adrenaline" stands in sharp contrast, a charging rocker with screaming guitar lines, a punchy backing horn section and Brooks singing urgently. Perhaps too much so in a song that seems to be part of an effort by Brooks to touch a variety of musical bases amidst the 10 songs.

A few don't rise above mediocre, particularly the single "Baby, Let's Lay Down and Dance' with its funk-laden break a particular low point. The song simply seems out of place and ultimately lightweight.

"Gunslinger" comes during a particularly busy release period for Brooks with a holiday disc with Yearwood and a 10-CD Target special all out within several weeks of each other. In looking back, "Gunslinger" is a clear step up from his "Man Against Machine" comeback album of 2014. For all the criticism mounted against Brooks over the years for being too slick and too commercial, he is at his best when he lives up the name and cover of "Gunslinger." In this case, you can partially tell a book by its cover.