On ''Garth Brooks In...The Life of Chris Gaines,'' his latest, the megalomaniac country star has shed a few pounds, stuck a black wig atop his head, and assumed the persona of a fictitious rock star, ''Chris Gaines.'' The album is billed as a ''pre-soundtrack'' for ''The Lamb,'' a feature film starring Brooks as Gaines. The flick -- which has yet to be made -- will supposedly chronicle the life of a pop star who's scarred in a car crash and makes a triumphant comeback.
''Chris Gaines'' prepares us for a truly alternative Brooks. Instead, the album is faded musical wallpaper: mewly, faux-Babyface-unplugged weepers (''Lost in You,'' ''That's the Way I Remember It'') and timid, rinky-dink attempts at blues rock (''White Flag,'' ''Snow in July'').
The most obvious change is heard in Brooks' voice. He slips into a sleek falsetto croon here, throatier rock balladeering there, even R&B boy-band harmonies. His singing in each area is proficient, yet has less character than his regular delivery. And would the hard-rockin', hard-livin', hard-mascara-wearin' Gaines actually gulp through a ''Footloose''-style bouncer like ''Digging for Gold''? The music is far too polite and not nearly as fun or raunchy as it's meant to be.
Granted, few acts would risk alienating their audience this way, and the album bypasses the predictability of, say, the career of George Strait. But the gimmick feels as cowardly as it does brave, for it allows Brooks to attempt a pop crossover -- it's his Shania Twain move -- without truly committing to it.
Much like the music on it, ''Chris Gaines'' is more interesting for what it represents than what it is. From Twain to Faith Hill's appearance on VH1's second Divas concert, the new country doesn't simply want to cross over into mainstream pop; it IS pop. While traditionalists remain, the true malling of the Nashville sound has begun, and the movement threatens to strip country of whatever individuality it once had. As for Brooks, perhaps he should have ditched Chris Gaines in favor of a more appropriate trendy rock moniker: Wimp Bizkit.