Brooks & Dunn have been compared to any number of country-rock duos of the past, including Loggins & Messina and the Bellamy Brothers. In fact, they're more like the Nashville version of Hall & Oates. Like those two chameleons at their peak, Brooks & Dunn are astute craftsmen who recycle bits of numerous styles into their own homogenized milk. Struggling songwriters who joined together in 1990 for the good of their careers, Kix Brooks and Ronnie Dunn instantly clicked on their double-platinum 1991 debut, Brand New Man, by mixing Garth Brooks' singer-songwriter sincerity, a dab of Alabama swagger, and a spritz of George Strait's Western swing. As the duo's smooth-talking (and singing) front man, Dunn is the South's answer to Daryl Hall. And Brooks, with his strong-silent-sidekick image and deeper voice, is, for better or worse, the John Oates of the duo.
We shouldn't necessarily hold such consummate hackdom against Brooks & Dunn. Country and pop, of course are filled with their clever likes, and every so often even snake-oil salesmen deliver the goods. That happened on parts of Brand New Man; its grip-the-road title song and hits like ''Boot Scootin' Boogie'' merged contemporary country and boisterous Southern rock into lick-it-up country junk food. And they dish out more of the same on their second album, Hard Workin' Man.
Brooks & Dunn know what the average country fan wants, and they deliver it in bushels. For the segment of the audience that consists of disillusioned baby-boom rock fans, they are more than happy to supply a batch of polite heck-raisers with a rock beat. For the more introspective part of the crowd (read: women), Dunn doles out maudlin, sensitive-guy ballads Garth Brooks Lite. Not only do they know which buttons to press, but they press them hard.
What's worse, many of those buttons work. ''That Ain't No Way to Go'' is an average she-left-me tale but with a swooping, beautiful chorus. ''Texas Women (Don't Stay Lonely Long)'' is sexist claptrap, yet it swings better than anything on the last few Strait records.
For all the album's competence, though, the heart of Brooks & Dunn's music is still a dull, blank void. They're not crass enough, in the tradition of Hank Williams Jr., to pull off vulgar shtick, and their music lacks the hardwood-floor resonance of, say, Mark Chesnutt or Garth Brooks at his best. Brooks & Dunn sound like they're play-acting at being country stars, and that phoniness gives Hard Workin' Man a flat aftertaste. Taken one at a time on country radio, these songs make for satisfying morsels. But when they're over, you may want to devour something a little meatier. C