At a time when so many similar-sounding bros are dominating country radio, Hunter Hayes stands out. He's the reigning Little Bro.
The 22-year-old's "Storyline" (Atlantic Nashville) plays that up, hanging his sophomore album on emotional, inspirational anthems and tender love songs delivered in a sweeter, higher register that makes all his songs sound distinctive. It's a risk, but the best new artist Grammy nominee seems poised to make it pay off.
The centerpiece is his single "Invisible," the country ballad equivalent of Lady Gaga's "Born This Way" that he debuted on this year's Grammy telecast. On the esteem-building hit, he goes one step further than Gaga, singing, "If you look past this moment, you'll see you've got a friend waving a flag for who you are and all you're gonna do." Hayes makes "Invisible" work so well that it overshadows everything else on the album.
He carries its theme throughout "Storyline," in the uplifting "Flashlight" -- where he declares, "When the world's too dark, I'll find your flashlight" -- and the hymn-like "Love Too Much," where he wonders "maybe we can change the world one heart at a time."
All that big-think soul-searching makes Hayes' more conventional songs feel a little small. His new, well-crafted single, "You Think You Know Somebody," a guitar-fueled, brokenhearted rant, will fare well on country radio, but it doesn't pack the same emotional punch. And average songs, such as "Secret Love," barely register.
Hayes takes "Storyline" to a new plateau, but the rising country star's tale is far from over.
THE GRADE B+
BOTTOM LINE Taking his pop-leaning country to the next level.