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Country artists are typically road warriors, and usually show off a charisma, energy and command that artists in other genres rarely summon. So why don't more country singers release live albums? Possibly because for all of their virtues, there are few Nashville musicians like North Carolina's Eric Church, who treats his shows as if they are revivals. Is it any wonder that Church's signature song is called "Springsteen"? Church was the most underrated singer-songwriter until 2011, when his third album, "Chief," hit the airwaves. It was then that the world realized what a talented wordsmith and bona-fide firecracker he is. On "Eric Church: Caught in the Act: Live," the rock-influenced musician sounds positively gleeful, while headlining arenas and amphitheaters for the first time. And he comes off equally genuine when he strips down a song (such as "Sinners Like Me") to its barest, moving core, or when he lets loose a swaggering anthem (such as opener "Before She Does," where he proclaims "I believe that Jesus is comin' back / Before she does," and "There's absolutely, positively no doubt in my mind / That OJ did it; Lee Harvey didn't / An' she's really gone this time"). With sterling musicianship, a voice with the right balance of grit and twang, and songs of conviction that shine with improvisation ("Springsteen," for one, opens with an elegiac piano and ends with an echo of "Born to Run"), this live album is alive. Grade: A-
Blake Shelton is such a fun raconteur as a judge on "The Voice" that it is always frustrating that his albums are rarely fun. On his new album, the 12-track collection "... Based on a True Story," he doesn't write or co-write a single tune, so in order to be considered a compelling artist, Shelton needs to show he can interpret songs with the talent and insight that other country singers such as Jason Aldean and Reba McEntire have mastered. He doesn't. While his voice is strong, it is consistently forgettable. It is a lazy album, with songs name-checking tired clichés involving guns, rednecks, country radio and including uninspired lines such as "Red lips like wine / Wanna drink 'em up." Instead of mentoring other singers on how to be successful and by the way, how many of those "Voice" winners have gone on to success once they're off the show? Shelton should sit down, perhaps with his talented wife Miranda Lambert, and make an album that shows us who he is really is. For now, he sounds like one of many indistinguishable, slick country singers on the radio. Grade: D
Brad Paisley's 2011 album "This is Country Music" was an encyclopedic journey that explored all of the facets and history of country music while never being didactic or less than spectacular. Anything following that epochal album would likely fall short, and that is the unfortunate situation that his eighth album, "Wheelhouse," suffers from. It is a pleasant yet unremarkable album, despite guest appearances from Charlie Daniels, LL Matt Kearney, Dierks Bentley, Hunter Hayes and even LL Cool J and Eric Idle of Monty Python. Paisley, who is an endlessly creative song-writer and virtuoso guitar player, is incapable of making a bad album, and his first single, "Southern Comfort Zone," is vintage Paisley in the best sense of the word. Songs "Those Crazy Christians" and "Accidental Racists" are topics that few other Nashville people would touch, but Paisley does so with a sharp wit. However, many of the songs lack memorable hooks and combustible energy that are usually part of the 40-year-old's charm. Grade: B-