LISTENING STATION: Tim McGraw’s ‘Emotional Traffic’

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Emotional Traffic

Tim McGraw

Curb Records

★★★

When the summer comes, Tim McGraw will skip vacation and head straight to court, where he’ll spend at least a few weeks battling his record label of the past 15 years.

The reason? Curb Records sat on the singer’s new album, “Emotional Traffic,” for two long years, claiming the record didn’t have enough potential singles to warrant its release. Mr. McGraw, who was already approaching the end of his Curb contract, argued that the label just wanted to keep him around as long as possible.

For the record, Mr. McGraw was probably right. “Emotional Traffic,” which finally sees the light of day this week, is stocked with everything the country singer does best, from beer-drinking honky-tonk songs to twangy pop anthems. It’s filled with single-worthy cuts, too, one of which - “Felt Good on My Lips,” released more than a year ago as part of the “Number One Hits” compilation - has already topped the charts.

Once the province of country fans and Nashville residents, Mr. McGraw’s music has found a wider audience in recent years. “Emotional Traffic” continues pushing him away from niche territory and closer to the mainstream with songs such as “Halo,” a stadium rocker with electric guitar riffs that reach for the rafters. Later in the album, singer Ne-Yo stops by for a cameo, adding some R&B spice to the album’s melting pot of rock, country and pop influences.

Some of the tracks fall flat. “Touchdown Jesus,” perhaps the worst offender, tries to draw a link between Sunday morning church service and Sunday afternoon football. Can you say “fumble”? Other songs make up for the yardage that “Touchdown Jesus” loses, though, and “Emotional Traffic” winds up being worth all the preliminary court dates and label disputes.

This is an album that shores up Mr. McGraw’s country base without shutting out pop fans, an album that takes songs written by other artists - from Dee Ervin’s “One Part, Two Part” to Ashley Gorey’s “Better Than I Used to Be” - and makes them sound like well-worn autobiographical tunes.

Human Again

Ingrid Michaelson

Cabin 24 Records

★★★

Ingrid Michaelson kicked off her career with 2007’s “The Way I Am,” a platinum-selling love song about accepting - no, about adoring - your partner’s flaws. She goes to a much darker place on her fifth album, “Human Again,” whose 13 tracks trade sunny optimism for heartbreak.

“Open-heart surgery, that is what you do to me,” goes the very first line. The rest of the songs follow suit, pairing Miss Michaelson’s killer pipes and down-in-the-dumps lyrics with piano chords, sweeping strings and lush orchestral arrangements. Despite the sad content, she sings every track like a survivor who’s proud to wear her broken heart on her sleeve, and “Human Again” feels grander and livelier than its lyrics suggest.

This isn’t the first time Miss Michaelson has turned to heartache for inspiration. A songwriter steeped in the Lilith Fair tradition, she’s always balanced her brighter songs with a healthy dose of melodrama. “Human Again” is the heaviest thing she’s done, though, and she shoulders the weight perfectly, turning what could’ve been a dour album into a rallying cry for the broken-hearted.

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