Thunder & Roses (Arista Nashville)

Album Cover for Pam Tillis

Love isn't perfect, and Pam Tillis knows it. Her new album is populated with characters who've learned that lesson the hard way, but who are nonetheless as determined as ever to find happiness.

For example, the album's first hit, "Please," depicts a single mother dealing with the tedious aggravations of dating again, atop an unexpected electronic beat. The pragmatic bride-to-be in "Off White" - perhaps the album's best track, and the only one Pam had a hand in writing - could be the same woman, now both wise and confident. The opener, "Jagged Hearts," offers a lesson in how this all works: One lover's scars are matched, and healed, by the scars of another.

Thunder & Roses also has room for less complex emotions. "It Isn't Just Raining" is a classic you're-out-cheatin'-and-I'm-stuck-at-home song, blessed with a chorus that recalls the sweep of "Maybe It Was Memphis," while "Tryin' " is a straightforward salute to persistence. But the album's greatest value is in tracks like "Which Five Years," which suggests the knowledge and understanding that come with age are a fair tradeoff for lost youth.

What all these songs have in common - beside Pam's rich voice, equally capable of expressing both granite strength and bruised vulnerability - is a realistic worldview not often found in mainstream country. There isn't an insincere emotion on Thunder & Roses, where even the blissed-out woman in "I Smile" expresses her current happiness by contrasting it with the pain she'd been accustomed to.

There are a couple of high-profile guest shots on the album. Vince Gill chimes in on "It Isn't Just Raining," and Pam sings a duet, for the first time, with father Mel on the closer, "Waiting On The Wind."

But Thunder & Roses is the best argument yet that Pam Tillis has carved her own place in the country universe. Not just any singer could embody the maturity and hard-won wisdom in these songs, and fewer still have the courage to try.

-- Chris Neal

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