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Review: Martina McBride Makes a Nicely Restrained Fresh Start With ‘Eleven’

The diva’s first album for a new label flirts with contemporary pop and Nashville-style R&B before settling into being a honest-to-gosh country album

For a bona fide diva, Martina McBride seems surprisingly determined to damp down her huge voice. Which, in case you’re wondering, is essentially a good thing.

On tour, she still hits nightly home runs with those big ‘90s ballads that climax with key changes and rafter-rattling soprano fireworks. But you won’t find any such easy-listening-gone-wild moments on “Eleven,” where McBride keeps her massive pipes in check and comfortably settles into the conversational style she’s lately favored.

In other words, Martina is basically Celine Dion if Celine were vocally modest and had a sense of fun. And if Dion came from Kansas. And allowed harmonica solos.

Besides being her 11th album, “Eleven” marks her first break from the RCA/Sony corporation she spent almost 20 years with. She’s starting over with Republic Nashville, sister label to Big Machine. (Yep, she got signed with some of that Taylor Swift money.) McBride has boasted about "Eleven" being more “rootsy and organic”… although fans may recall these being the same talking points used to promote 2007’s “Waking Up Laughing.”

Her new co-producer, Bryon Gallimore, proves a solid match, striking the right balance between gloss – which she’s always going to have, even in her post-adult-contemporary phase – and relative grit. “Eleven” has kitchen-sink elements, veering from peppy pop-country to old-school Music Row torch balladry to Nashville R&B. But Gallimore gets consistency out of these country subgenres by imbuing every track with a crisp live-band feel.

An inherently warm performer, McBride has a knack for doing “inspirational” without succumbing to schlock. Following in that tradition, “I’m Gonna Love You Through It,” her current single, is her Breast Cancer Anthem. The that’s-what-friends-are-for theme continues with “You’re in My House Now,” a celebration of sheer hospitality that somehow avoids being as hokey as any description makes it sound.

Your sugar tolerance may be more severely tested by “Marry Me,” a Train song now  turned into a duet between McBride and pal Pat Monahan. It would’ve been even better as a duet between McBride and the steel guitar that intermittently floats into the mix, but you can’t blame her for favoring the better-known partner.

Here’s some good news, anyhow: Somewhere around track 7, “Eleven” turns into as pure a country album as McBride has made, and it stays there.

“Teenage Daughters,” a good-natured parental lament, makes McBride into the Loretta-esque housewife next door, if the neighboring hausfrau were suppressing a multi-octave range. “Whatcha Gonna Do” takes marital strain more seriously, in the tradition of another literally questioning McBride oldie, “Where Would You Be.”

The album reaches its emotional low point – and a musical high point – with the classic-style C&W weeper “When You Love a Sinner,” soon to be played at Al-Anon meetings across middle America.

But the album’s standout is the similarly dysfunction-resigned “Closing Time.” Unfortunately, you’ll have to buy the Target-only deluxe edition to hear it. In fact, all four of the songs exclusive to that expanded package are arguably as strong as any of the 11 tunes on the standard version. 

Remember when bonus tracks were obviously inferior leftovers or even runts of the studio litter, not highlights deliberately withheld to draw more traffic to big-box chains? Is it time for music fans tired of shelling out for deluxe and/or retailer-exclusive editions to organize an #OccupyBestBuy protest?