Though her first six albums consisted of little more than the singer caterwauling like a strangled Muppet on terribly-written original songs and even more terribly-chosen covers, 2005's This Woman unexpectedly found LeAnn Rimes maturing into a vocalist of sensitivity and sophistication. She still didn't sound a thing like Patsy Cline, to whom she'd always been compared, but she finally sounded like a singer worth taking seriously in her own right. Rimes's latest record, Family, is an even stronger effort. If not quite as dense and singular an accomplishment as Miranda Lambert's Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, Rimes's Family is among the strongest mainstream country albums of the past several years. As co-writer of each of the album's 12 proper tracks, she's given the collection the kind of focus and thematic coherence that most Nashville acts can't be bothered with.
Whereas Rimes formerly relied on shouting, melisma, and hiccuppy vocal tics, here she further develops into a distinctive interpretive singer. When so many of her contemporaries try their damnedest to avoid having any real presence on a record, Rimes takes the first word of the album's rambunctious lead single, "Nothin' Better to Do," and drawls it into something with at least five novel vowel sounds. That isn't something that happens by accident; it shows that Rimes has actually thought about how she's singing. It's a great moment in isolation, but Family is full of ones that are just as attention grabbing. Whether she's cutting loose and singing from her chest when asking for "A Good Friend and a Glass of Wine" (which boasts the album's strongest melody), singing just ahead of the beat on "Upper Hand," or giving the most subtle, understated performance of her career on the lovely "What I Cannot Change," Rimes is experimenting with how best to use her voice. So even when there are occasional misjudgments (she skews more than a bit nasal on the retro-styled "One Day Too Long," when she's aiming for a vintage soul throwback), they're the result of Rimes trying something new.
Family also moves Rimes in a more rock-leaning direction than she's attempted before. While her cover of "Me and Bobby McGee" from a few years ago would have suggested otherwise, that's a stylistic decision that suits the more mature Rimes quite well. The opening title track, for instance, suggests a more polished update of Tanya Tucker's T.N.T.-era sound, while "Nothing Wrong," her duet with Marc Broussard, should only build on her crossover appeal in Adult Top 40 markets. Producer Dan Huff's arrangements are rowdy enough to suit the material and to stand somewhat at-odds with what's currently popular in mainstream country—the slick pop-country of Carrie Underwood and Taylor Swift—without necessarily positioning Rimes as an outsider. Like most everything else about Family, it's a calculated risk that pays off. It's Rimes's most ambitious record by far, and it gives plenty of reasons to expect that the second decade of her career will have even greater impact than the first.