Two of country music's biggest stars have new albums out, but while Martina McBride returns to her contemporary roots, Tim McGraw continues to blaze his own path.
McBride follows up her exemplary 2005 classic-country covers collection, "Timeless," by returning to the contemporary sound that made her a star.
Faith and acceptance are major themes on "Waking Up Laughing" (RCA), and McBride's own understanding of both concepts and her impressive interpretive gifts lift the great songs here to majestic heights and make the merely good ones seem better than they are.
In "Anyway," obliquely referring to the devastation of Hurricane Katrina in the first verse and the improbability and heartache involved in becoming a singing star in the second, McBride concludes that no matter what you think God may be giving you, prayer, optimism, and love can be their own rewards.
Prayer pops up again on the thoughtful "For These Times" as McBride intones, with a Dolly Parton-style tenderness, "blessed is the believer who knows that love is our redeemer."
Nearly as good is the Keith Urban duet "Tryin' to Find a Reason," in which a couple comes to terms with the death of their love. Urban offers up exquisite harmonies and a soulful guitar solo to boot.
While the last few songs have a whiff of pandering to them -- as with the "we're poor but we have each other" bromides of "House of a Thousand Dreams" -- only the tonally discordant "Beautiful Again" flat- out doesn't work.
A sunny melody that begs for a singalong and a plucky mandolin groove scrapes up uncomfortably against a hard luck tale of alcoholism, pedophilia, and a deadbeat dad. Sometimes that type of juxtaposition works; here it just sticks out like a sore thumb.
SARAH RODMAN Martina McBride plays the Tsongas Arena April 21.
For the first decade of his career, McGraw was just one more hat act, indistinguishable from dozens like him, playing what dominated mainstream country music for much of the 1990s -- watered-down honky-tonk, recycled '70s-style ballads and rockers, and, above all, feel-good music.
But then, enabled by his burgeoning popularity, McGraw started to make different choices. Instead of "I Like It, I Love It," he was singing "Angry All the Time." The 2002 release "Tim McGraw and the Dancehall Doctors" was a declaration of independence that found McGraw making a huge leap in sound and subject matter.
"Let It Go" (Curb), his latest album, continues down that path. It has its share of arena-country pop and rock, but there's also the R&B groove of "Suspicions" (a killer cover of the Eddie Rabbitt original) and an ample amount of stone-country reiteration -- the boom-chick beat of "Shotgun Rider" (with Faith Hill's harmonies riding shotgun); the intense, she's-left-me lament "Kristofferson."
"Let It Go" also qualifies as the darkest record that McGraw has ever made. "I'm Workin' " catalogs the strains a night-shift job puts on a man and his family. The title song addresses the difficulty of coming to terms with past mistakes. There's even a contribution to the country tradition of murder ballads (although this one is plenty rocked up): "Between the River and Me" unapologetically chronicles the use of that premeditated means as both retribution and the solution for a stepfather's violence.
As much as anything else here, that song is evidence of McGraw's determination to keep going his own way.