Sister Hazel

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Absolutely Review

by Stephen Thomas Erlewine

With their sixth album Absolutely, Sister Hazel are caught at a vaguely weird crossroads. Nearly ten years on from their AAA blockbuster "All for You," the group is no longer part of the mainstream, but that doesn't mean that their music has left the mainstream. Although they're now on an independent, Sister Hazel don't sound all that much different than they did when they were on a big label having big hits; all that's changed is the pop music landscape, which isn't as receptive to the kind of slick yet earnest roots-pop that's Sister Hazel's specialty as they were in the wake of Hootie & the Blowfish's success in the late '90s. There's still a market for it, as evidenced by Sister Hazel's ongoing success as a touring outfit, but there's not an outlet for it, since radio no longer has any format to fit tuneful mainstream guitar pop from aging bands. And, truth be told, Sister Hazel haven't changed much at all over the past decade, if Absolutely is any indication. This is a record that could have been released as the sequel to their big 1997 album Somewhere More Familiar, but they instead chose to branch out ever-so-slightly with 2000s Fortress, and when their profile started to dip, they chose to cover the Cars on Lift. Neither of these slight concessions led to greater sales, and neither are apparent on Absolutely, which is about as back-to-basics as it gets for Sister Hazel. This is nothing but 13 tracks of slick but straight-ahead roots-pop. Richard Marx might have been brought on board to give some polish to "Meet Me in the Memory" but he doesn't overpower singer/songwriter Ken Block or Sister Hazel's genial rock, he just helps enhance their sweetly sentimental side for a number (although truth be told, the group has never been adverse to sentiment). To the group's credit, no matter how shiny the production is on Absolutely -- and it absolutely is, as if it was crafted for radio in 1998 -- it's still possible to hear their live muscle beneath the gloss, which helps give this album strength, but what gives it cohesion is a good set of catchy songs that sound suited for kicking back at the end of the week. It's the most consistent album they've done since Somewhere More Familiar and even if it doesn't wind up being a hit like that record, it will nevertheless surely and easily please the fans that have stuck by them all these years.

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