Steers & Stripes by Brooks & Dunn

First, the bad news: Brooks & Dunn have been in a rut for a while. The best evidence was 1999's Tight Rope, an album on which the pair worked pretty much separately, neither with the previous level of engagement and enthusiasm that made them country's most successful duo.

The good news, though, is Steers & Stripes, the new album from a reinvigorated B&D. True to its swaggering title, Steers & Stripes surges with energy and a sense of renewed purpose. Whether it was finally losing their CMA Country Duo of the Year crown to Montgomery Gentry last year, or just a natural cycle of regeneration, something has lit a fire under these guys.

The rock-solid riff of the flag-waving opener "Only In America" serves notice of the pair's new vigor, and the Lynyrd Skynyrd stomp of "The Last Thing I Do"

follows up on the promise immediately. The momentum ebbs and flows—especially late in the album, when the slower songs threaten to take over—but the crackle is always present.

Ronnie Dunn's smooth-like-fine-whiskey voice has several showcases here, chief among them is the stridently lascivious Top 10 "Ain't Nothing 'Bout You"—listen to the way he makes his way through the twists and turns of its sinewy melody. Kix Brooks, singing better than ever, delivers his vocals with commitment and personality—especially on the hilarious morning-after anthem "Deny, Deny, Deny." The repeated false starts on the hard-country "Lucky Me, Lonely You" are good for a chuckle, as well.

Steers & Stripes is weighed down by a few too many ballads, but the only real misstep is its closer, the aimlessly chugging, synthesizer-laden "See Jane Dance." But in the 13 songs preceding it, B&D take a very convincing stab at reasserting their claim as country's top twosome—and showing Montgomery Gentry who's boss.

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