'Wheelhouse' Review by The Star Ledger

As an appreciator of fast, imaginative guitar, I've got a fantasy throwdown to propose. In one corner, representing the United Kingdom, we'd have seminal folk-rocker and Stratocaster wizard Richard Thompson, whose umpteenth album "Electric," released earlier this year, showcases his scorching leads. In the other, representing the good old U.S.A., we'd have Brad Paisley — the best six-string slinger in Music City, and a man who loves to show off. Over the course of 10 albums, Paisley has managed to build on the legacy of quick-picking, string-bending Nashville legends like Redd Volkaert and Clarence Goddard and establish an expressive vocabulary of his own. Thompson and Paisley don't merely tell tales with their guitar solos — they can crack you up, too. They both use their solos to decorate and intensify songs that are both candid and courageous; songs that look at life from idiosyncratic perspectives.Those who don't know Paisley very well are likely to be surprised by "Wheelhouse," his latest album. Many of the subjects the affable West Virginian addresses would have been avoided like rattlesnakes by his Music City peers. "Accidental Racist," done as a duet with rapper LL Cool J, looks at the legacy of slavery (and the problems inherent in wearing a Skynyrd T-shirt in 2013) and finds both sides of the Mason-Dixon wanting in compassion. "Southern Comfort Zone," the lead single, asks country fans to broaden their horizons and accept cultural differences. Paisley slyly enlists Charlie Daniels — not a man known for his progressive politics — to deliver a feisty monologue during "Karate," a song about retaliation for domestic violence. Then there's "Those Crazy Christians," which turns out to be both skeptical and beautiful, a question put to the Almighty and a sentimental declaration of faith.But Paisley has always been a provocative songwriter. On the "American Saturday Night" set, he astonished contemporary country fans by celebrating the election of President Obama. "This Is Country Music," his outstanding 2010 set, looked at first glance like a return to basics — but with its spaghetti-western instrumentals, straightforward corrective advice to Confederate flag-wavers and fire-and-brimstone preachers, and excursions into gospel, soul, and hard rock, it turned out to be anything but. Much of "Wheelhouse" is typical congenial Paisley: songs about cornfield parties, pledges of devotion to winsome country girls, and at least one clumsy but amusing joke (assisted here by Monty Python's Eric Idle) about a man escaping a bad marriage through a near-death experience.Then there are the solos. Fiery, barbed, and electrifying, they splash across the songs like bright paint flung at a canvas. It's misleading to say that Paisley has never played better, because he's always played this way — with mastery, confidence, daring and good humor. Omnivorous in its inspiration, too: "Onryo," which is written on the sleeve in Chinese characters, takes as its jumping-off point a riff pinched from Eastern music. That's typical of Paisley, who, with two feet planted firmly on Southern ground, is unafraid to look to distant horizons for new challenges. By - Tris McCall The Star Ledger