Joe Nichols

Crickets

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Amiable guy that he is, Joe Nichols adapts easily to a new surrounding -- and 2013's Crickets certainly does place the neo-traditionalist country singer in a new setting. A devotee of the Haggard/Travis/Jackson school, Nichols is savvy enough to realize that this kind of deeply felt country no longer really sells in 2013, so he treats his first album for Red Bow as an opportunity to reposition himself as a modern kind of guy, the kind who not only knows about iPods and chatrooms but will sing about them too. All of Crickets is peppered with these kind of off-hand references to the modern world, but Nichols' true tell is the bright, affable sound of the record, how it finds a cozy middle ground between his burnished signature and the hyper-stylized, over-sized country of new millennial sports bars. Usually, Nichols seems at ease with the easy-rolling tunes -- "Better Than Beautiful" is a sweet ballad that could've fit into the Urban Cowboy era -- but when the tempo is perky without being sprightly, the production crisp without gleaming, he sounds chipper and affable too, as on "Hard to Be Cool" and "Sunny and 75." So much of the success of Crickets depends upon Nichols' inherent likability -- a crutch he's relied on before, when the traditionalist well started to run dry -- and in this irrepressibly cheery context this nice-guy attitude is no doubt an asset, as it gives the slickness humility. But no matter how well Joe Nichols wears these new clothes, all it takes is a smooth, understated cover of Merle Haggard's "Footlights" to remind us that his true strengths are rooted in the past, not the present.

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