Phil Vassar, "Traveling Circus"
On his fifth studio set, "Traveling Circus," Lynchburg, Va., native Phil Vassar set out to make an album without following the conventions of Nashville's paint-by-numbers record-making-he hired his road band to back him and produced the album himself. Although it steps off the Nashville assembly line, "Traveling Circus" finds Vassar (who either wrote or co-wrote every song) less of a maverick than he might have hoped, as the result isn't radically different lyrically or sonically from previous efforts. But that's not to say he failed; quite the opposite. The standout tracks include lead single "Bobbi With an I," a refreshing comedic jaunt about a cross-dressing good ole boy, and "A Year From Now," a haunting, piano-drenched ballad about hidden optimism in the face of teeth-grinding heartbreak. Although Vassar's pleasing, supple voice recalls classic '70s pop singers, this album isn't about distinctive singing-it's about delivering superbly crafted country songs. And when that's the goal, Vassar always shows up wearing his game face.-Wade Jessen