Picks and Pans Review: Big & Rich

updated 11/28/2005 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 11/28/2005 AT 01:00 AM EST

Comin' to Your City
vs
Merle Haggard
Chicago Wind

CRITIC'S CHOICE
Comin' to Your City: [STARS 2]
Chicago Wind: [STARS 4]

If Big & Rich represent the new school of country, then Merle Haggard represents the old school. Both have recently released albums that, for better and for worse, demonstrate the great divide in Nashville.

With last year's double-platinum debut, Horse of a Different Color, Big & Rich—the MuzikMafia duo of "Big" Kenny Alphin and John Rich—became true country outlaws by mixing rock and rap into their decidedly untraditional sound. But on Comin' to Your City, they mostly seem to be going through the motions, with the boots and hats but without the soul or spirit. While their vocal shortcomings are finessed—they sound slick and video-ready—tracks like "20 Margaritas" and "Blow My Mind" seem to have been composed by a focus group. And not even the sonorous presence of Kris Kristofferson can put any heart into "8th of November," about an ambush in Vietnam.

On the other hand, Haggard, despite kicking around for 40 years, sounds fresh and enthusiastic; he's still writing and finding engaging songs to wrap that warm, unfailingly musical baritone around. The highlight of his excellent latest, Chicago Wind, is Haggard's own jaunty "Some of Us Fly," a duet with Toby Keith that manages to be playful and tuneful even as it conveys its big statement about pursuing dreams. Haggard also shines on Roger Miller's "Leavin's Not the Only Way to Go," a wry lament on which the singer flexes his own keen sense of irony, and Willie Nelson's "It Always Will Be," which allows him to affectingly wax romantic. It all goes to show why Haggard, unlike Big & Rich, is as close to Nashville royalty as it gets.

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