Gill Takes 'Sound' Into Pop Mainstream

VINCE GILL; "High Lonesome Sound", MCA (***)

The title of Gill's 11th album suggests an exploration of his bluegrass roots, but that only applies to a couple of the songs--the title track (reprised at album's end in a version with Alison Krauss) and the fiddle-drenched "Given More Time." Otherwise, this is in many ways the Oklahoman's most overt foray into mainstream pop, culminating in the Steely Dan-like sophisto-blues of "Down to New Orleans."

Gill has the integrity to make these moves seem like a natural eclecticism rather than desperation or aimlessness, but that doesn't guarantee uniformly high quality. Some of the lyrics are pretty lightweight, but his dusky, radiant tenor elevates slender material, while the dignity at his core safeguards against embarrassments.

Gill is too much a teddy bear to be convincing as the macho, bluesy Romeo he tries to portray at times. As always, he's at his graceful best when pledging devotion or seeking reconciliation. There's nothing here as transcendent as the classics "Look at Us" or "I Still Believe in You," but there's one notable stretch: the folky "Jenny Dreamed of Trains," a longtime concert entry that he wrote with Texas troubadour Guy Clark.

Albums are rated on a scale of one star (poor), two stars (fair), three stars (good) and four stars (excellent).

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