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Rascal Flatts keep feel-good formula

September 28, 2007|Ann Powers | Times Staff Writer

Rascal Flatts

"Still Feels Good" (Lyric Street)

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The roots of Rascal Flatts are in Ohio -- a state notable for being Midwestern, borderline Southern and a link to the Northeast all at the same time. It's the perfect spawning ground for this cross-pollinating trio, which makes sweet smoothies that incorporate power ballad-oriented rock, quiet storm-style intimacy and country traditionalism and twang.

Blends like this deliberately downplay any sharp flavors, the better to attract listeners who "kind of like" any of these styles without committing to one. That's why Jamie Foxx, the one notable guest on Rascal Flatts' fifth album, "Still Feels Good" (out Tuesday), is more lulling than lustful on his cameo, even though the song's called "She Goes All the Way." Imagine what he might have done on a Kanye West song with that title!

Instead, we get more of the ardent balladry that's launched a million post-anniversary dinner make-out sessions since the Flatts debuted seven years ago. "Take Me There," co-written by Kenny Chesney, is an emotional seduction conducted on extra-thick down pillows; Gary LeVox, his voice clear as a bedside bottle of water, gushes dynamically about wanting to know where his new love "keeps the rest of your life hid." (Isn't that the line that should make the heroine run in a spy thriller?) The Bryan Adams-esque title track revisits that hook-up a million embraces later, and guess what? It still feels good.

Other songs aren't so happy, because admitting pain is part of being a post-feminist real man. None of the heartbreak ballads shows the cutting insight of "I Feel Bad," a memorable cut from the Flatts' huge 2006 album, "Me and My Gang." And when the angels cry for the kids who found Daddy's shotgun in "It's Not Supposed to Go Like That" (a bit of melodrama that starts with an acoustic guitar that doesn't live up to Cat Stevens' "Father and Son"), I want to hand these guys a pamphlet on gun control.

Paralyzing sentimentality aside, "Still Feels Good" does what country-pop was invented to do: take the most effective tools of Nashville songwriting truly nationwide.

Rascal Flatts mine country's emotional openness and musical attention to form but frees the music from regional boundaries by employing more surging guitar than fiddle and more middle-class relationship talk than working-class ruminations on morality.

Garth Brooks and Shania Twain did this a generation ago with more flash and far more surprise. Country's been the new classic rock for a while, and the unstoppable rise of Rascal Flatts suggests that it's ready to get its butt kicked by whatever kind of punk-style revolt it might inspire. (Maybe Miranda Lambert's already leading it.) Until then, "Still Feels Good" will provide another bunch of Kodak moments for our digital camera world.

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