Pop music doesn’t really need a new Pat Benatar. The original has aged beautifully and is still in terrific voice, and Kelly Clarkson already fills that contemporary role better than anyone else. But that seems to be the direction pop-country superstar Martina McBride is taking on Shine. With producer Dan Huff layering heavy percussion loops and massive electric guitar riffs on songs like opener “Wrong Baby Wrong Baby Wrong,” the bluesy “You’re Not Leaving Me,” and lead single “Ride,” the album often suggests the slick, hook-heavy pop-rock of Benatar’s signature hits. Even the synths that emerge on the slow-building ballad “Lies” recall the pop singer’s “We Belong.”
It’s an interesting production choice for McBride, whose output has been dominated by uptempo trifles like “This One’s for the Girls” and barely-country power ballads like “Where Would You Be,” in that the style here actually suits her voice. As she’s proven repeatedly throughout her career, the woman can belt out a song with a borderline-inhuman force. On Shine, she neither drowns in nor overpowers the arrangements, as she has on much of her recent output. Huff’s production choices ultimately serve to rein in one of McBride’s worst tendencies: Her rarely effective reliance on volume to convey emotion. There’s not an extraneous glory note to be found on the album.
Perhaps even more significant, though, is that the album also lacks another of the trademarks that has often made McBride’s music so insufferable. For the first time in ages, she has shied away from cloying, shameless songs promoting social consciousness. “Independence Day” is always going to be her signature record, but maudlin, poorly-written songs like “God’s Will” and “Anyway” have only cheapened that song’s legacy by making McBride seem desperate for another iconic “issue” song and by badly missing that mark. Here, “I’m Trying” touches upon alcoholism, and “Wild Rebel Rose” uses its references to physical abuse in the context of a narrative that, if not exactly complex, doesn’t overstay its welcome. Neither song is of the same caliber as “Independence,” but neither plays like a Lifetime movie like “Will” or “Angel.”
The restraint that she shows in both her vocal performances and her song selection are a refreshing change of pace. Unfortunately, she still lacks the instincts of some of the genre’s superior interpretive singers, especially with regard to choosing quality material. “Ride” has a pretty terrific melody, but its central conceit is built on clumsy mixed metaphors and the empty uplift upon which McBride too often relies. “Sunny Side Up,” co-written with the Warren Brothers, is but another example of the kind of dead-eyed optimism that has made some of her previous efforts so lightweight. Songs like “Don’t Cost a Dime” and “I Just Call You Mine” are pleasant enough, but they’re slight and ultimately forgettable.
Even if McBride lacks the emotionally resonant vocal phrasing of Trisha Yearwood or Lee Ann Womack, McBride sounds more fully invested on some of the album’s meatier cuts: “Lies” is one of her most effective performances, while “I’m Trying” pours out as a convincing, vulnerable confession. Unfortunately, too much of the material hinges on easy emotions and a cheerfulness that simply becomes tiresome. Still, while McBride often makes music that’s meant to be “encouraging,” Shine is encouraging for different reasons. It’s her first album since 1997’s Emotion on which McBride has made some decisions that truly play to her strengths.