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I Loved Her First – 2006 (Lofton Creek)

Reviewed by Ken Burke

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CDs by Heartland

Blending acoustic guitars, colorful traces of fiddle and Southern rock instrumentation augmented with little dabs of soul, Heartland's 11-song debut highlights snappy execution and catchy hooks galore.

The Alabama-based ensemble consists of vocalist Jason Alberts, guitarists Craig Anderson and Mike Myerson, bassist Keith West, fiddler Chuck Crawford, and drummer Todd Anderson. Despite the presence of several guest musicians, their sound is appealingly lean and in-the-groove, especially on such redneck anthems as "Boys Like Us," "Too Country," the ZZ Top inspired "Let's Get Dirty" and the Lynyrd Skynyrd homage "Freebird in a Firebird."

The quintet's bar band leanings receive modern commercial grounding from producer Walt Aldridge. A crack tunesmith, Aldridge co-wrote the band's cuddly daddy-gives-his-daughter-away ballad hit title track and the uplifting failed-romance-as-a-sports metaphor, "Play Hurt." Further, he penned Ronnie Milsap's 1981 hit "No Getting Over Me," and had his new charges cover it - in credible style.

Most groups would drown in the emotional goo of "You," "Built to Last" and the country soul ballad "Judge a Man by the Woman," but Heartland's genuine country feel and Alberts' hardcore southern vocals, evoke something fresh and engaging from even the most formulaic love paeans.