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Alan Jackson 

Precious Memories (ACR/Arista Nashville)

A commercial powerhouse who's never used his stardom as a bully pulpit, Alan Jackson has a great ability to imbue emotion with reason (or perhaps vice versa). In "Where Were You (When the World Stopped Turning)?," his hit 9-11 remembrance, Jackson describes himself as "not a real political man" -- one who watches CNN, but isn't sure he "can tell you the difference in Iraq and Iran." Toby Keith turned the idea into an excuse to kick somebody's ass; in contrast, Jackson articulated the complicated mix of anger and regret that arose in the wake of September 11.

You can hear Jackson's evenhanded approach throughout Precious Memories, an album of stripped-down gospel standards the singer originally recorded as a Christmas present to his mom. Limited to guitar, piano, and organ, the arrangements emphasize Jackson's vocals, which eschew the kind of breathy drama skeptics typically view as central to the form. But because the material is so familiar, the disc actually suffers from Jackson's restraint; a few times, it sounds more like Sunday-school karaoke than the labor of love it evidently was. Only in "Turn Your Eyes Upon Jesus," where Jackson sings the heart-tugging melody with a hint of heartbreak in his voice, do we get a true sense of his complex persona.

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