Garth Brooks


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Garth Brooks had a real hard time in the latter half of the '90s, running through a couple of muddled near-crossover records before diving off the deep end with the extraordinary In the Life of Chris Gaines. Following that historic bellyflop -- few albums in history have been as misconceived and as widely rejected -- Brooks took some time off, retreating from the spotlight (which was particularly helpful when he divorced his high-school sweetheart) and laying low until late fall of 2001, when he returned with Scarecrow. The extended time off turned out to be a blessing, since it seemed to help him focus for Scarecrow, his strongest album since he delved into unabashed crossover with Fresh Horses. Sure, there's still a healthy dose of pop here -- he does cover America's fine Californian folk-rock "Don't Cross the River," for instance -- but this is a clean, spare record that never overplays its hand and, in turn, it showcases Brooks' talent for synthesizing popular music styles particularly well. Really, there are no new twists here, but that's part of what's good about the record: He's returned to his strengths, whether it's boozy barroom ravers like the deliriously good George Jones duet "Beer Run" or the preponderance of dramatic, portentous ballads like "The Storm." On paper, this may sound like a retreat, but it plays like a revitalization since it plays to Brooks' strengths -- a country boy raised on Eagles who likes country when it rocks, but pumps up power ballads with fiddles and twang. This is no surprise, of course, but it's refreshing to hear him in such a simple, unadorned context, performing good songs with conviction -- performances good enough to prove that there's more soul here than on most alt-country records. The friskier songs, from "Beer Run" to "Big Money," fare better than the ballads, but those ballads still work, and overall Scarecrow proves that mainstream modern country doesn't have a better singer than Brooks at his best. And it's good to have him at his best again.

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