Toby Keith

Shock'n Y'all (DreamWorks)

Ten-gallon hats off to Toby Keith. As the No. 1 ticket in America, the oil-riggin' good ol' boy-cum-new country badass has actualized the great American dream. He was well on his way to solidifying himself as country's plain-talkin' top dog even before his less-than-sensitive "Angry American" response to 9/11 kicked up gobs of publicity. Don't think for a minute that this just plays to hayseeds in Peoria; folks adore Keith's redneck-with-a-cause shtick from sea to shining sea.

Not surprisingly, Shock'n Y'all (a near homonym to Dubya's "Shock and Awe" campaign in Iraq) brims with Middle American chest-beating anthems. The record's juke-ready themes of bedding whiskey-drinking sweethearts, loving Jesus and bombing the shit out of the Taliban are sure to dominate country charts for the next six months.

Though it's a far cry from the clever pop country ditties of Garth Brooks, the record has no want for occasionally clever punch lines ("The Critic") or beer-swigging choruses ("I Love This Bar"). But where Shock'n Y'all ultimately bombs is in Keith's utter lack of subtlety. Every track is populated by cartoonishly simple characters and two-dimensional sentiments, all painted with the broad strokes of Keith's thickheaded values. And the problem isn't just that these are expressed in painfully dull Dr. Seussian rhymes. As the record plays on, they are also contradictory. Keith is the all-embracing Jesus lover and the warmonger, the family man and the weed-toking, ass-grabbing bar hound.

Ultimately, it's not the Saturday night at the bar/Sunday morning at church routine that is bothersome -- C&W and R&B have both beautifully toed that dichotomy for generations. It's that every one of Keith's statements is barbed with the judgmental edge of that dang Angry (Scary?) American. It's a pretty ugly picture, and no matter how slick the packaging (which happens to be covered with logos from Keith's Ford sponsorship), there are moments when it borders on candy-coated hate speech ("Taliban Song"). The fact that this record will probably be one of the season's best-selling releases in the U.S. of A.? That's the great American nightmare.

 
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