It's clear from the cover photo on 2005's Fireflies that Faith Hill is beating a retreat from her half-baked, half-successful 2002 pop diva makeover, Cry. Not that the album was bad, or even an outright flop -- it just failed to do what it was intended to do, which was to make Faith Hill a true rival to Shania Twain, where her pop success was as ...Read MoreIt's clear from the cover photo on 2005's Fireflies that Faith Hill is beating a retreat from her half-baked, half-successful 2002 pop diva makeover, Cry. Not that the album was bad, or even an outright flop -- it just failed to do what it was intended to do, which was to make Faith Hill a true rival to Shania Twain, where her pop success was as great as her country following. Big and polished Cry may have been, but it just wasn't memorable or hooky enough to be great pop and unlike Shania's very clever everywoman pose, Hill's pop move was too detached, too snooty for her country audience. Since she's no fool, Faith Hill has quickly returned to the country-pop and big ballads that brought her stardom on 1999's Breathe, but that doesn't mean she's not playing it smart and savvy. She's recorded several songs by John Rich -- best known as half of Big & Rich, but also a professional songwriter who is pretty close to being ubiquitous in 2005, in the wake of his duo's success. Here, he proves to be a sharp professional by bringing his craftsmanlike musical skills but not his oversized humor to the table with such songs as the laid-back, breezy "Sunshine and Summertime" and the appealingly slick power ballad "Like We Never Loved at All," delivered with harmonies by Hill's husband, Tim McGraw. Of course, this being a 21st century pop album, he's not the only collaborator or songwriter on board. Longtime Hill producer Byron Gallimore once again produces the great majority of the album, and he's as instrumental in steering Hill back toward the country-pop mainstream as he was in pushing her toward the pop mainstream, helping her deliver a set of strong, professionally crafted songs, highlighted by three selections from acclaimed singer/songwriter Lori McKenna. While it's hard not to wish that Hill had a few more loose, funny numbers like "Dearly Beloved" -- a kissing cousin to the Dixie Chicks' "White Trash Wedding" that's not only the purest dose of fun here, it's also the purest dose of country, too -- this is a good straight-ahead mainstream country album, aiming squarely at the middle of the road and hitting its target perfectly. The songs are solid and square, sounding comfortably familiar on the first listen and growing more memorable with repeated plays, Hill never oversings, and the entire affair is perfectly likable and pleasant -- the kind of thing that will shore up her support after the shaky Cry, RoviRead Less
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