On the surface, there's a dash of vulgar, culture-clashing fun in the fact that an Australian hunk named Urban is a poster boy for country music's contemporary suburbanization -- it's like setting a commercial for a tricked-out SUV in an exotic outback and adding a twanging hillbilly soundtrack. Actually, many of Urban's earliest hits were more like riding in the back of a minivan with closed, tinted windows. Despite his knack for white-funk rhythms and arena-rock lead guitar, the singer-guitarist's thin, plaintive vocals, lush arrangements, and dewy lyrics made hits like the aptly titled "Your Everything" a suffocating bore.
Supposedly Urban opens up in concert, where his rhythms and leads would naturally ventilate his material, and surprisingly, some of his latest hits off last year's semi-concept album Be Here abandon the soccer-mom sentiments altogether. Credit may go to the 37-year-old's increased creative control, as he penned most of the material himself and turned to quality songwriters like Rodney Crowell and Matraca Berg for the rest. The album's highlight is Berg's "Nobody Drinks Alone" (because "every memory you held back follows you home"), an arena-country anthem in which this reformed drinker plays and sings like he's finally found a vehicle for doing something more than just cruising to the bank.