Country singer Dierks Bentley mostly sticks with what he knows on fourth album Feel That Fire, while pushing his music closer to the country mainstream that already embraced him in a big way with 2006’s Long Trip Alone. Long Trip had plenty of slicked-out rockers, but it also had a stronger connection to Bentley’s traditional country influences; Fire tips the scales in favor of guitar-heavy tunes like the title track, “Sideways” and “Life on the Run.” Not that Bentley’s country-rock is entirely generic; “Here She Comes” and “Little Heartwrecker” are catchy, successful hybrids of arena hooks and country twang that are pretty much destined to climb the country charts.
Better still, though, are the moments when Bentley stops to embrace the rootsier, more alternative influences on his sound. Singer-songwriter Patty Griffin lends her voice to the somber “Beautiful World,” and bluegrass scion Ronnie McCoury joins Bentley on a cover of McCoury’s “Last Call,” which serves as a companion piece to “Prodigal Son’s Prayer,” Bentley’s bluegrass-infused collaboration with The Grascals on Long Trip. These detours prove that Bentley is more than just a pop-country pretty face, although not every one is successful—the Tex-Mex-sounding “I Can’t Forget Her” is a bit of a turgid mess.
Bentley’s balance of pop-rock accessibility and pure-country traditionalism is a delicate one, and Fire isn’t as satisfying a mix as Long Trip was. But it’s still a hopeful sign that he’ll continue to temper his party-down anthems with a healthy dose of introspection and classicism.