Garth Brooks takes curious musical detour

Review: The country star tries to reinvent himself -- literally -- with a phony pop star persona on a bogus `Greatest Hits' album. We are not convinced.

September 28, 1999|By J.D. Considine | J.D. Considine,SUN POP MUSIC CRITIC

Imagine for a moment that you're the biggest star in country music. Your albums routinely top the charts; your tours play to packed houses from coast to coast. You've set numerous records and won countless awards. Millions know your name.

Why would you want to be someone else?

That's the question Garth Brooks fans are asking as their hero, seemingly at the top of his game, takes a hiatus from country music so he can pretend to be rock star Chris Gaines.

It would be convenient to say that the answers to this and other questions may be found on "Garth Brooks in ... The Life of Chris Gaines" (Capitol 20051, arriving in stores today), but sadly, that is not the case. If anything, the album makes this peculiar situation all the more puzzling.

Start with the title. Though the album is officially called "Garth Brooks in ... The Life of Chris Gaines," the CD itself is packaged as if it were the Chris Gaines album "Greatest Hits."

That's what it says on the front of the CD booklet, on the spine of the jewelbox, and even on the CD itself. (The real title appears only on the back cover of the CD booklet.)

Inside the CD booklet, we get an overview of Gaines' career -- "Greatest Hits" is supposed to be his fifth solo album -- along with a bio, and notes on what prompted him to write each song.

It's all fiction, of course; Gaines doesn't exist, nor did Brooks pen the tunes (Gordon Kennedy and Wayne Kirkpatrick did the bulk of the writing).

Still, the Chris Gaines saga is an interesting tale, not least because of what it reveals about Brooks' fantasy life.

Gaines isn't just a rock and roll singer; he's a superstar with a tragic personal life. His first band, Crush, broke up after lead singer Tommy Levitz died in a plane crash, but Gaines bounced back with a solo album that -- naturally -- was a huge hit. Further tragic losses ensued, yet Gaines' chart domination continued. In fact, we're told that "critics" are already predicting that his next album, "The Lamb," will be the "definitive album of the new millennium" (all this from the liner notes).

In truth, "The Lamb" is the name of a film project in which Brooks will bring the life of Gaines to the silver screen. As yet, the flick isn't even in production, but that hasn't stopped Brooks from billing this album as "The Pre-Soundtrack to the Movie `The Lamb.' "

Clearly, we're dealing with some serious ambition here.

But if Brooks intends to convince us that his Gaines is an artist whose work has "defined our times over the last decade," he'll need to be one heck of an actor. Because there's no way any rock fan will ever believe that the bland, '70s-style pop/rock presented on "... The Life of Chris Gaines" could possibly have dominated the charts in the rough-and-tumble '90s.

Sure, the music is full of contemporary pop touches, including light R&B, jammin' reggae, and mild rap (though it sounds more like rhythmic talking), with nary a fiddle or pedal steel in sight. Yet for all its high-gloss production, overseen by the incredibly capable Don Was (Bonnie Raitt, Rolling Stones), the songs aren't terribly convincing as rock and roll.

Instead, the performances come across as Garth Brooks without a country band. It doesn't matter that the rhythm section lays down a slick, funky groove for "Snow In July," or concocts a slinky, guitar-edged arrangement for "Way of the Girl," because what Brooks does on top of the instrumental tracks is sing with the same pop/country delivery he's used for the last five years.

Maybe there's a little more falsetto and a little less twang, but those are fairly minor differences. Considering how much Brooks' country recordings have drawn from the sound of '70s soft-rockers, it's no stretch at all to have "Lost in You" sound like Dan Fogelberg Lite, or "White Flag" like dumbed-down Don Henley. Only the overt Beatlisms of "Maybe" are in any way new, but even there, Brooks does so little with the singing that the backing track ends up more interesting than the vocal.

So why did Brooks remake himself into such an unremarkable and unconvincing fake pop star? My guess is that Chris Gaines is the product of pure vanity, of Brooks' belief that he can become a big-time pop star merely by constructing a fake identity.

But as any teen-ager can tell you, even the best-made fake ID isn't going to convince people that you're something you're not. Whether Brooks goes ahead and makes his Gaines movie remains to be seen, but if "... The Life of Chris Gaines" is any indication, "The Lamb" will be heading to slaughter.

Garth Brooks

Garth Brooks in ... The Life of Chris Gaines

(Capitol 20051) **1/2

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