You could drive yourself crazy wondering whether modern Nashville’s simultaneously grandiose and ascetic appropriation of the pop music past reveals something reprehensible and confused lurking in the American psyche or whether you’re better off just reveling in the Sunbelt flash and speed of it all. Worrying about aesthetic miscalculation might well be as fruitless as wishing for a NASCAR event in which an obvious hottie like Pamela Anderson brings down the starters’ flag (which actually happened in May of this year) and a quirky indie actress like Shirley Henderson holds court in the winner’s circle with brainy, ironic Nextel adepts (which I guess hasn’t happened yet).
Dierks Bentley’s Modern Day Drifter represents Nashville’s ascetic side, from its Todd Rundgren-style honky mid-range production values to its light and fleet modernized folk-rock-bluegrass arrangements. The single “Lot of Leavin’ Left to Do” conflates Waylon Jennings’s droop-eyed dead calm and Clarence White and Nashville West’s mordant guitar licks into an energized performance that recalls any number of AM classics—it’s brilliantly conceived, insanely catchy, and somewhat shallow. “Cab of My Truck” rocks out with a lapidary, madcap precision, tosses in a perfectly placed Beatle-esque riff, and manages to avoid mere formalism through sheer exuberance. The change-of-pace ballads recall Poco or the Desert Rose Band, but even here the slightly trebly production and understated group dynamics make shallowness seem like a sound artistic decision.
Keith Anderson’s Three Chord Country and American Rock & Roll is more problematic. Jeffrey Steele’s production is richer than Brett Beavers’s work on Drifter. But Anderson is not a particularly strong singer, and “The Clothes Don’t Make the Man,” which is about Keith’s wrongly jailed brother, the pedophile priest two cells down, and Jesus, does smack ever so slightly of aesthetic miscalculation. He’s better on the size-matters tall tale “XXL,” with Roxy Music piano and a psychedelic guitar figure that recalls the XTC of Skylarking. The John Rich-produced title track features Bartók-in-‘Bama fiddles and thuds along with hick cool; still, the references to Aerosmith, John Cougar, Johnny Cash, and Hitler seem somewhat too obvious a demographic-broadening move. But hell, this former bodybuilder and ace college baseball player is having fun being one of country’s current hotties, and if I find Shirley Henderson and the mustache she sported in the 2003 film Intermission sexier than Pamela Anderson and her shorts and high heels, that’s just me and my crazy aesthetics.