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Shock of the new: Big & Rich and Gretchen Wilson

drag country music into the future.

Horse of a Different Color

Big & Rich

(Warner Bros. Nashville)

On their debut album, the aptly titled Horse of a Different Color -- which currently sits at #2 on the Billboard country album chart -- the duo Big & Rich bounce from classic-rock crunch to moody modern rock to hip-hop beats to honky-tonk swagger to AOR guitars to rap-en-Español to calypso and western. And that's just on the first four songs. The message, as simple and direct as anything in pop music this year: It's country music if we say it is.

This show-off move rhymes nicely with another historical music moment: Rapper Rakim spitting the lines "Even if it's jazz or the quiet storm/I hook a beat up/Convert it into hip-hop form" back in 1987. But there's a difference. Rakim's line was a power grab on behalf of a genre; Big & Rich's jawdropper of a record is a loving assault on a genre. Rakim was saying that anything can be hip-hop; Big & Rich are saying that country music can be anything.

In truth, country music has been building to this moment for a quarter-century now, since neotrads like John Anderson and Randy Travis first reacted against the too-slick strains of countrypolitan. That ostensibly conservative reaction didn't end country's bid to go pop but merely rerouted it in a more gritty, populist direction: Garth Brooks as Jimmy Buffett, Mutt Lange relocating hair-metal cheese to Music City, Brooks & Dunn cribbing Stones riffs, Kenny Chesney jamming with Kid Rock, Bubba Sparxxx rapping over the Yonder Mountain String Band. That Horse of a Different Color could have been predicted yet still seems wholly fresh, and maybe even a little revolutionary, is a testament to a musicality that matches its considerable concept.

Despite the presence of African-American MC Cowboy Troy ("'Cause back home we love to dance/We could be two-steppin' or raving to trance/And when the party is crunk, the girls back it up/We've got the systems in the cars and the 20s on the trucks"), Horse of a Different Color proves to be much more than a novelty. The duo of Big Kenny and John Rich sing 95 percent of the album in beautiful harmony, like brothers Everly or Louvin, Kenny taking the low notes and Rich providing the high and lonesome. The cowboy movie as break-up metaphor of "Wild West Show" ("Don't want to see us go the way of the buffalo") is as elegant a piece of songcraft as has dented the charts this year. (And it connects Outkast to Rawhide without making a fuss about it.)

"Big Time" and "Real World" are losers' anthems of uncommon grace and humor, as befits a country duo that appropriates the triumphant upward mobility of hip-hop without losing their class-consciousness (which means they wouldn't trade their Chevrolet for your Escalade, but they sure would appreciate you leaving a little bling-bling in their tip jar).

Horse of a Different Color isn't flawless -- it's a little disingenuous on racism ("The whole color thing's never made sense to me" -- really?) and a little maudlin in its Christianity (a subject they don't make as much of as they might have). Through track five, it's perfect. (The soaring chorus of "Six Foot Town" might be my favorite musical moment of the year.) After that, it gets by on highlights like the storming-lower-Broadway anthem/bumpersticker slogan "Save a Horse (Ride a Cowboy)," the Walter Mitty-ish "Real World," and the languorous riverboat shuffle "Drinkin' About You."

But, whatever its flaws, Horse of a Different Color is momentous. There might not be a more important --or more righteous --record released this year.

-- Chris Herrington

Grade: A-

Here for the Party

Gretchen Wilson

(Epic)

Gretchen Wilson's out-of-nowhere hit single "Redneck Woman" is a female-empowerment anthem that walks a thin line between subversion and caricature. In the second verse, Wilson disses Victoria's Secret models and claims, "I don't need no designer tag/To make my man want me." In the chorus, she confesses that she leaves her "Christmas lights on/On my front porch all year long." It's a joke line, written for an easy laugh, but Wilson sings it with enough conviction that it becomes not just believable but possibly autobiographical.

That's the dynamic on Wilson's rambunctious debut, Here for the Party -- which currently sits atop the Billboard country album chart -- most of which was produced and co-written by Muzik Mafia cohorts Big & Rich. Even when her material isn't stellar, her strong performance redeems it. The result is an album that may be problematic but still manages to convey Wilson's unique personality with all of its contradictions intact. "Homewrecker" is a too-obvious throwback to Loretta Lynn's feisty "Fist City," but Wilson puts a distinctive mark on it: She's not being protective of her straying man; she's just happy to pick a fight. Likewise, her half-rap toward the end of "Chariot" more than compensates for its lackluster half-groove.

Here for the Party is at its best on ballads such as "When I Think About Cheatin'" and "Holdin' You." Wilson's image may not be as polished as Nashville contemporaries like Faith Hill and Julie Roberts, but her voice is just as commanding. She's simultaneously confident and intimate as she hits every note precisely without stooping to doing the kind of vocal runs -- why hit one note when you can hit three or four and do that little hand thing? -- that ruin so many ballads by Christina Aguilera and Britney Spears.

It's not such a stretch to compare Wilson to those two former teen-pop idols. Along with Big & Rich, Wilson is earning a big audience by making of-the-moment country music that is always aware of its past even as it incorporates hip-hop, rock, and pop elements. In other words, the party's just gettin' started. -- Stephen Deusner

Grade: B+

Hello

The Mattoid

(Cleft)

The hardest part of writing a review of an act as unique as the Mattoid is finding words to adequately describe the sound. Here's the best I can come up with: Cross Leonard Cohen with Jandek and back him up with the Velvet Underground's rhythm section, circa White Light/White Heat. But even that doesn't really do the Mattoid justice, because the Finland-by-way-of-Nashville singer/songwriter is, first and foremost, fun.

The 11 songs on Hello always come back to the subjects of happiness (there's even a song called "Happiness"), love (witness "Rat Poison," the story of a man who is so in love he refuses to die even though the object of his affection poisons and shoots him), and the sheer joy of making music. The dying narrators of "Funeral Party" and "Blue Suede Shoes" don't need heaven because they've got rock-and-roll. And the transcendent "Juri Gagarin" (notice the northern European spelling) looks forward to "the place where nobody knows" but seems to have already arrived.

Hello's simplicity of outlook would be off-putting and saccharine if it weren't for its absolute deadpan delivery and periodic black-metal roars of operatic despair. The lyrics achieve a weird sort of English-as-a-second-language eloquence, making lines such as "I'm going to get real funky and rock/Almost all night long" sound Dylanesque. And when words fail, the Mattoid is not above just chanting nonsense to keep the party moving. Rock-and-roll has always embraced outsiders, and it's hard to imagine someone much more outside than this hulking Finn with a clear appreciation for the simple things in life. n

-- Chris McCoy

Grade: A-

E-mail: herrington@memphisflyer.com

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