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POP MUSIC REVIEW

Rascally rule No.1: Flattery

July 17, 2006|Randy Lewis | Times Staff Writer

The secret to the remarkable success of the unremarkable Rascal Flatts is that the trio learned early on that the best way to ingratiate itself with fans is to demonstrate the unwavering affection and loyalty of a puppy dog. That's long been true of the group's catchy but lightweight music, and it was the governing principle behind the group's "Me and My Gang" tour stop on Friday at Staples Center, an anything-to-please attitude that hit its peak in "Here's to You," a love letter to fans:

\o7

It's the girls in the front row

singin'

It's the boys with the wheels that

bring them

Its lighters in the air and you

guys up there

You're the heart and soul

And the reason we do what we do

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Tuesday July 18, 2006 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 60 words Type of Material: Correction
Gary Allan hit: A review of the Rascal Flatts-Gary Allan-Wreckers concert in Monday's Calendar referred to "Best I Ever Had" as a song written after Allan's wife's suicide in 2004. The song was written by the group Vertical Horizon and first appeared on the group's 1999 album, "Everything You Want." Allan recorded it on his 2005 "Tough All Over" album.

Here's to you

\f7

On Friday thousands of cellphones, not lighters, brightened up the arena's interior on cue, but the rest was pretty much as outlined in those lyrics. Females outnumbered males at least four or five to one, underscoring the threesome's canny exploitation of contemporary country's core demographic: women.

In hit after hit, Rascal Flatts tells listeners what they want to hear -- they're loved and adored and perfect just the way they are -- rather than engaging in any of the messy soul-searching that's at the heart of the best country music.

It's no coincidence that Rascal Flatts' ascendancy began in 2000, at the peak of the teen-pop era of 'N Sync and the Backstreet Boys. With their youthful, fresh-scrubbed good looks, singer Gary LeVox, bassist/multi-instrumenalist Jay DeMarcus and guitarist Joe Don Rooney injected a twang into the mix and delivered country's first good ol' boy band. LeVox's high-pitched, elastic vocals lend a low-key R&B note to the sunny country-pop-rock proceedings, while the occasional loping backbeat references hip-hop in an utterly nonthreatening way.

There are signs in the new "Me and My Gang," the trio's fourth album and the bestselling country album of 2006, that as time goes by the threesome is interested in reaching a bit deeper. Jeffrey Steele and Steve Robson's "What Hurts the Most" addresses the pain of failed love that's so frequently absent or sidelined from Rascal Flatts' insistently "I'm OK, you're OK" mission statement. More typical of the album, and Friday's set list, was Tommy Orton and Blair Daly's "Stand," an exercise in cheerleading -- and cliche-mongering -- that advises "You'll be alright, you'll be alright .... When push comes to shove / You taste what you're made of."

That pushed any thought of grappling with life's challenges into the deep background during a grand-scale production full of fireworks, confetti cannons and banks of ever-active video screens that follows the Rolling Stones' and U2's model of putting the show's stars up close and personal with fans. That was accomplished with a three-pronged stage that protruded into the crowd as well as with a flying deck that transported LeVox, DeMarcus and Rooney to the opposite end of the arena floor midway through the show.

They've honed their stage personalities into clearly defined archetypes: LeVox is the affable master of ceremonies, Rooney the brooding sex symbol, DeMarcus the comic relief. But likability is a far cry from genuine charisma and no substitute for the kind of musical vision necessary to make Rascal Flatts worth remembering 20 years from now.

In a lively 45-minute set, Southland native Gary Allan supplied some of the edge that went missing from the headliners' performance. The singer, songwriter and guitarist leans on the twangy California country sound and isn't afraid to juxtapose meatier stuff alongside the fun of disposable hits such as his quasi-novelty single "Nothing On but the Radio." Allan included two key songs from his 2005 album, "Tough All Over" -- "Life Ain't Always Beautiful" and "Best I Ever Had" -- written after his wife's suicide almost two years ago. The standing ovation he received at the end of his performance suggested there might be room for a broader range of life's rich pageant in the world of commercial country music.

Michelle Branch and Jessica Harp, a.k.a. the Wreckers, were fresh and spunky enough in their 20-minute opening set of bouncy pop-country-folk and happily Everly after harmonizing drawn from their album "Stand Still -- Look Pretty." Maybe a little too spunky. Branch took a detour during the band's brief time on stage to unleash some rock-star attitude, berating security staff for not allowing her manager into the pit in front of the stage. The tirade didn't look very pretty.

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