COUNTRY: Rascal Flatts, "Changed" (Big Machine)

Rascal Flatts is the union of a kick in the gut and a warm bath, the tension between feeling as assault and feeling as salve. That's in the lyrics, sure, but just as often in the song structures themselves, which veer between high-drama up-tempo numbers and higher-drama ballads. Fluency in ballads is what's made Rascal Flatts into one of the more successful country acts of the past decade. Frontman Gary LeVox has a gargantuan voice, steeped in Nashville's pathos if not its twang.

What's notable at the beginning of the sometimes rowdy (for this group) "Changed" is LeVox's willingness to tone it down. He subjugates himself to the music, which on the single "Banjo" and "Hot in Here" is lighthearted and loose and, unlike some of this group's grand slow songs, very affirmedly country.

"Can't take a breath without getting sick/I've had enough of this concrete jungle," LeVox sings on "Banjo," adding later, "Sometimes you gotta go beyond the pavement." That's a mandate this group has often avoided, but on this album has largely taken to heart. Even though there are hints here of the group's trademark ambitious melancholy, what stands out are the new moods, on songs such as the jumpy "She's Leaving," which cloaks hurt in a sparkly package.

But the group can't wholly escape itself, opening with the king-size title song about modesty and rebaptism, and closing with "A Little Home." That song is vintage Rascal Flatts, a storytelling verse about someone feeling alienated, saved by the intervention of the one he or she loves, and a soaring voice to drive home the point.

JON CARAMANICA, NEW YORK TIMES

 

POP/ROCK: Paul Van Dyk, "Evolution" (Vandit)

For a half-decade now, Top 40 pop has been leaning toward the proudly synthetic, inexorably propulsive sound of European club music. On "Evolution," his first album of new material since 2007, German DJ-producer Van Dyk leans back. This A-list trance kingpin has long studded his whooshing beats with catchy vocal hooks delivered by guest singers. But "Evolution" drives deeper into songfulness; it seems fully aware of the moment.

The album's best track is also its most audacious: "Eternity," featuring Adam Young of Owl City, whose "Fireflies," from 2009, made a No. 1 pop hit out of cloistered bedroom electronica. Van Dyk's partnership with Young here -- in a tune that duplicates the sparkly wistfulness of "Fireflies" -- could be an appealing riposte to dance music's purity squad. So, too, might "I Don't Deserve You," in which the singer Plumb channels the airy defiance of Kelly Clarkson.

Not everything on "Evolution" is so sharply focused; the album's middle section, especially, feels larded with the kind of big-room sound-scaping Van Dyk can probably punch up in his sleep.

MIKAEL WOOD, LOS ANGELES TIMES