It would be easy to say that Josh Kelley's career peaked when he married the actress Katherine Heigl, but that apparently is not enough for this easygoing singer-songwriter. Kelley's no stranger to the charts, with Amazing and Only You both sizeable adult contemporary hits for their time (2003 and 2005). Yet, those first albums cast him in the mold of a perkier Michael Penn or less-jazzed Jason Mraz. Something more genuine wasn't making its way through in the vocal delivery of this Ole Miss Grad and Augusta, Ga. native (and brother of Lady Antebellum's Charles Kelley).
"Georgia Clay" marks a breakthrough. While Kelley's early songs only postured to grown-up love, this collection gives us the real deal. Whether it's the title track's celebration of teenage memories, a neglecting lover's determination (A Real Good Try) or the tenderness of the bruised heart (Gone Like That), Kelley's now found a way to both simultaneously emote and relax.
There's definite high points in the barnburners, including the honky-tonk Raining Whiskey and Great Idea, where a Springsteen tape and a highway could rekindle an old flame back to life. It's dicier when Kelley writes more slowly and directly to his intended. Learning You wants steaminess, but its PG-rated poetry and soul-less arrangement makes unintentional laughter as likely as a seduction. But that's redeemed by the gorgeous Naleigh Moon, which turns a small lullaby to his daughter into an anthem for the adopted ("halfway around my little world/you had no idea/you were my girl"). Kelley's clearly hitting his stride in life and love.