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Album review: Daughtry's 'Leave This Town'

July 13, 2009 |  4:57 pm

Daughtry_240_ To understand the sensibility Daughtry brings to hard rock, read the acknowledgments in the CD booklet for "Leave This Town." Every member of the band put together by Chris Daughtry, the chart-topping former "American Idol" contestant, thanks his wife profusely -- except for the drummer Joey Barnes, who expresses deep gratitude to a spouse he hasn't yet met.

What happened to the stripper-worshiping hedonism of hair metal, or even the lonely, monkish pose those messy '90s grunge rockers struck? Daughtry and his boys are marriage maniacs. That's what gives this band its pioneering edge, despite the utter predictability of its music.

Focusing on the drama of long-term relationships, Daughtry does something more radical than many more sonically adventurous (and fashionable) rock bands dare.

This doesn't make "Leave This Town" anything but a familiar listen. This is by-the-numbers arena rock, played with muscular competence by a relatively young band showing off its chops by executing successful formulas.

That unwed drummer might be the best thing about Daughtry the band -- Barnes is itchy enough to push forward anthems that might otherwise plod. Guitarist Josh Steely also has his moments, throwing in spicy little riffs. And there's Daughtry's voice, of course, an instrument cleaner and stronger than that of anybody else singing mainstream rock right now. Sometimes the notes he hits here are so open, you'd swear someone had invented a new audio processor just to generate it: Vibrato-Tune. But the mix on "Leave This Town," by hit doctor Chris Lord-Alge, is so compressed that it's tough to notice what each player is doing.

Because of this, though many of its songs surely will be radio staples for the next two years. "Leave This Town" might not make an impression on those not already inclined to love it, but Daughtry is still a major architect in mainstream rock, and his music is part of an important shift in the genre.

This Christian father of two is not the first rocker to tackle the subject of monogamy, but he could be the most focused on its ups and downs and the most passionate about its value. It's one thing to offer to lay your lover down on a bed of roses, the way Jon Bon Jovi did; it's another to write about how an argument can make you stalk off clutching your car keys and then come slinking back, or to assess a breakup with the level-headed words, "Don't be surprised when we hate this tomorrow, God knows we tried to find an easier way."

That song, "No Surprise" was co-written by Nickelback's Chad Kroeger; but unlike that band, Daughtry never indulges in tongue-wagging lechery. When he does address new love, in "Supernatural," it's with a blushing hopefulness that would have suited a 1960s girl group (or the Jonas Brothers).

More often, Daughtry dwells on those downs -- the misunderstandings, regrets, momentary straying and emotionally charged returns that make up a lifetime spent together. Most remarkable are the two songs he co-wrote with the talented pen-for-hire Brian Howes.

"Ghost of Me" vainly comforts a lover whose (possibly justified) doubts about the singer come out in her dreams. "What I Meant to Say" is anti-apology from a tongue-tied guy who can't get the upper hand with his argumentative mate. Both focus on the kinds of real problems that actually wreck relationships, not on the fantasy realm of romance.

Daughtry might get more credit for his interesting perspective if he were a sharper writer on a line-by-line level. He's prone to clichés, and to flowery phrases like "tonight the sunset means so much," which work against his common-man persona. He could learn something from more grass-roots songwriters like Billy Bragg and John Darnielle of the Mountain Goats, who've been burrowing into the details of domestic life for years, in more literary settings. He can also learn from country music, which he reaches toward here with the not too original Vince Gill duet "Tennessee Line."

But what's important about Daughtry's relationship rock is that it is rock, macho and cathartic. In recent years, the audience for this music has matured and expanded to include middle-aged PTA parents and the "nice" kids who would never have gone for the gender-bending, whiskey-swilling lifestyle with which the music was long associated.

Chris Daughtry and his mates are making rock that's not just safe for this more sober crowd, but powerfully attuned to it. Dismiss him at your peril.

-- Ann Powers

"Leave This Town"
Two and a half stars