Seems we've heard this number before Review: 'Sevens,' Garth Brooks' latest album, isn't bad. It's just missing his trademark freshness.

November 25, 1997|By J.D. Considine | J.D. Considine,SUN POP MUSIC CRITIC

Garth Brooks is a master of cliche.

That's not meant as an insult, either. Like a lot of country singers, he prefers playing on the tried-and-true, working with recognizable characters and familiar situations because that's what the audience expects. Cowboys and honky-tonks, faithful love and broken hearts -- these are as much the stuff of country music as fiddles and steel guitars.

What makes Brooks such a master is that he can play on these cliches without your even noticing how familiar they are. Had it been left to Hank Williams Jr., a song like "Friends in Low Places" would just have been another rowdy, honky-tonk rouser. But because Brooks took its nose-thumbing attitude and played it as mischievous wit, "Friends in Low Places" came across as something fresh and funny. It hit home in ways Hank Jr. never could.

So how come the cliches on "Sevens" (Capitol Nashville 56599, arriving in stores today) seem, well, so much like cliches?

Start with "Two Pina Coladas." A spirited invitation to "set sail with Captain Morgan," it's a mildly mocking ode to drinking your troubles away that would make a perfect addition to the Jimmy Buffett songbook. But that's the problem. Because between the lilting Caribbean-lite arrangement and the boozy, sing-along chorus, Brooks and company don't do anything Buffett hasn't already done, and done better. It's just a tad too familiar.

Much the same could be said for "Belleau Wood." Based on an actual incident in World War I, when American and German troops found a moment of brotherhood during a Christmas truce, it's a genuinely moving story.

But it's also one we've heard before. All Brooks brings to it is a bit of fresh corn: "And the battlefield where heaven stood/ Was blown to hell again."

Part of the problem is how flat the stories behind these songs seem. What made "When the Thunder Rolls" so shocking was that Brooks made its wife-beating protagonist a real person. But for all its attempts at drama, "She's Gonna Make It" portrays a situation, not the people in it. Likewise, though the ragged-yet-dedicated street preacher at the heart of "Fit for a King" may be admirable as an ideal, he's drawn as flatly as a figure in a stained-glass window.

Even the upbeat numbers seem strangely unsatisfying. "Longneck Bottle," which opens the album, seems to start from strength, with the band swinging confidently as Brooks begs the bottle to "let go of my hand." That honky-tonk swagger gains confidence as Steve Wariner, who wrote the song, gets in a jazzy solo on acoustic guitar (though pedal steel player Bruce Bouton tops him with an even snazzier set of licks), and Brooks seems genuinely to be enjoying himself with the song.

Even so, it's hard to find anything special about what Brooks brings to the performance. In fact, when he dips down into the bottom of his baritone range, it only serves to remind us how much like a George Strait number it is.

Or take "Cowboy Cadillac." Yet another variation on the car-as-woman metaphor, its twist is that Brooks' protagonist really is drooling over his ride. But because the band never quite puts the pedal to the metal, this "Cadillac" never gets above cruising speed, making it hard to understand why, exactly, Brooks would be so stuck on the old clunker.

Thankfully, Brooks doesn't spend the entire album stuck in third gear. "Do What You Gotta Do" finds him operating at full throttle, singing with such fervor that the song's take-charge-of-your-life lyrics seem less like a suggestion than a command.

The music echoes his determination, too, kicking off with acoustic guitars slashing out a power-chord riff, then building momentum as Hammond-organ chords swell over a nervously twitching banjo pattern. It's a classic Brooks move, using traditional country instrumentation to achieve the sort of melodic drama found in a Springsteen rocker.

But it's a ploy he uses all too rarely, leaving "Sevens" with far less spark than early efforts like "No Fences" or "Ropin' the Wind." It isn't that the thrill is gone -- Brooks brings enough passion to "I Don't Have to Wonder" to make the song's ending a shocker no matter how many times you hear it -- just that it's diminished. And while that's enough to make "Sevens" solidly entertaining, it's not the winning dice roll the title suggests.

Bits of Brooks

To hear excerpts from Garth Brooks' new release, "Sevens," call 410-783-1800 and enter the code 6148. For other local Sundial numbers, see Page 2A.

Pub Date: 11/25/97

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