Kathy Mattea
The Innocent Years
Mercury Records

It may soil one's alternative-country credentials to claim that some truly decent stuff sneaks out of Nashville's Music Row. Like Kathy Mattea, for instance, who records middle-of-the-road country-pop, yet pulls it off so well that one cannot deny her artistic significance. As a matter of fact, in light of Music City's penchant for churning out processed cheese utterly lacking in nutrition, Mattea deserves a measure of respect for the sheer quality of her output.

This is especially true with The Innocent Years, which is something of a concept album. Mattea uses this forum to examine life from the perspective of someone over the age of 40 -- and trust me, kids, one thing you get in middle age is some of the perspective and wisdom you wish you had when you were younger. This is music for grown-ups with adult concerns, and in these days of Britney and 'N Sync, that's a reassuring thing.

On her first album in three years, Mattea follows up two consecutive CMA Female Vocalist of the Year awards with a work that's true to who she is, which is virtually an act of defiance in today's Nashville. Rather than chase the money and Dixie Chick it up, Mattea follows her heart back to her native West Virginia, particularly on the album's sweet and stately title track. At her best, Mattea comes up with songs that not only hook your attention but prompt retrospection and empathy to boot. The witty "Trouble with Angels" is a mid-tempo percussive dance tune with a smidgen of Caribbean spice, while "Callin' My Name" recalls the best aspects of the '70s California singer-songwriter movement. "I Have Always Loved You" is the sort of solid, stirring ballad that other singers might easily overdo, but Mattea's warm alto conquers the tune with a winning subtlety. "(Love Is) My Last Word" may be her statement of purpose, but it is also a tour de force that should earn its place as a wedding song for years to come. And after such serious matters, Mattea nicely cuts loose on the chuckling bonus track, "BFD."

The Innocent Years is balanced well on the fulcrum between good modern country and quality pop. Even the nuggets of soap here are hand-milled and tastefully scented. This may not be your specific cup of tea, but the blend is unquestionably delicious.

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Rob Patterson