Tim McGraw, "Two Lanes of Freedom" (Big Machine)

This is McGraw's first album since he announced that he gave up alcohol five years ago. It's also his first record for Big Machine — appropriately, also Taylor Swift's home label, given her single "Tim McGraw" — and he looks hale and hearty in the album's accompanying videos.

It all signals a major new start for McGraw, one of pop-country's bestselling but critically assailed figures. If only the songs on "Two Lanes" were as honed and wiry as their singer. The album should keep him atop the country commercial firmament, but doesn't really advance him as an artist.

The record is brawnier than most of McGraw's catalog, with "One of Those Nights" built on the rock guitar riffing that McGraw & Co. showcased on a recent stadium tour with Kenny Chesney. But the writing is as modern-boilerplate as it comes — an ode to drinking away a heartbreak in Mexico ("Mexicoma," a pun that borders on Nashville-factory camp), a paean to hillbilly life ("Truck Yeah") that flagrantly tries to coin a party slogan.

"Highway Don't Care," McGraw's collaboration with Swift and Keith Urban, is a blowout of a sendoff ballad, and we're glad McGraw beat his demons. But it's a shame he didn't take the musical chances that can also mark a new beginning.

August Brown, Los Angeles Times


Richard Thompson, "Electric" (New West)

In 2010, great British guitarist Thompson released a live album of new material, "Dream Attic," recorded with his touring band. The album was among Thompson's best because it directly addressed a quibble that ardent fans would raise about some of his recent material: that it could be a little too polite and refined for its own good.

Thompson fanatics valued his ferocity and invention as a guitarist as much as his singing and songwriting. In recent decades, the guitar at times served the songs almost to a fault, as if Thompson were too modest for his own good. "Dream Attic" was looser and rougher and "Electric" follows suit.

Recorded in Nashville with kindred spirit Buddy Miller producing, "Electric" retains the core of the Thompson touring band from "Dream Attic," a "Celtic power trio," as Thompson calls them. Not that everything is all out, all the time. The material ranges from autumnal folk ("Another Small Thing in Her Favour") to hard-rock stomp ("Stuck on a Treadmill"). Drummer Michael Jerome and bassist Taras Prodaniuk bring the thunder when needed, but also can be sensitive accomplices. A few ringers add fiddle and female harmony vocals that evoke the Celtic and Scottish folk melodies in Thompson's musical DNA.

The quieter material, such as the melancholy "Salford Sunday" and the surprisingly poignant "My Enemy," seems even more devastating when set against the twisted ferocity of "Stoney Ground," the garage-rocking "Straight and Narrow" and the wicked "Sally B." Thompson's guitar contains multitudes, the raunchiest riffs morph into spiraling solos that suggest Scottish bagpipes, Eastern sitars or the backward psychedelic effects of "Revolver"-era Beatles. It ends on an acoustic grace note, "Saving the Good Stuff for You."

Greg Kot, Chicago Tribune