Part II (Arista/ Nashville)
Brad Paisley's debut, Who Needs Pictures, was a blockbuster. It sold over a million copies and inspired critics, fans and fellow artists to sling around phrases like "the savior of country music," putting extraordinary pressure on the young West Virginian's follow-up. So does Part II have the ingredients of a hit summer sequel? Let's see:
1. Humor. A big part of Brad's charm is his self-effacing wit, first glimpsed on the hit "Me Neither." He leads with his funnybone on Part II, kicking into gear with the darkly funny "Two Feet Of Topsoil." He doesn't stop there, either - even the campy instrumental "Munster Rag" goes for laughs.
2. Drama. The album offers some top-flight storytelling. "You'll Never Leave Harlan Alive," in particular, is a stunner - a darkly realistic parable about how the coal mines of Kentucky damned workers and their families with a sense of preordained doom. While it's one of only three tracks Brad had no hand in writing, his voice betrays how close to home it hits.
3. Romance. While most of the love songs are just that, the album's peak is the desolate "I Wish You'd Stay." The epic breakup tune stretches past the six-minute mark, as Brad's guitar wails starkly against a stately string arrangement like a coyote howling into the dusk.
4. A strong leading man. Brad's performance is Part II's main attraction. His warm voice and spitfire guitar playing have never been more confident, and his pure-country ethic still guides him through songs like the guest-star-laden "Too Country" - extolling the virtues of down-home Southern living and its native music - and his live-at-the-Opry version of "The Old Rugged Cross."
All in all, Part II is a rare sequel that tops the original.
- Chris Neal