During 'I Do Now,' a song from LeAnn Rimes' new 'Spitfire' album, the singer name-checks the Dixie Chicks. The track is a feel-good, take-my-life-back kinda song nestled between much more moody and emotional fare. The similarities between the two acts were never so apparent until she says it.

"I always did believe the Chicks / Cowboy would send me away / That ol' record makes me wanna dance," Rimes sings during a song in which she admits she listens to cheating, drinking and love songs differently these days.

Songs that are so real it's almost uncomfortable? Check. One-of-a-kind vocals and a total command of the microphone? Check. An soul-baring album that rips apart your heart? Check. Social drama leading to name-calling and abandonment by country radio? Check. Rimes isn't quite the pariah Natalie Maines and company are, but she certainly has a passionate group of haters.

Step back from what you think you know about LeAnn Rimes and you'll find a project packed with truly brilliant moments -- songs that are amongst the best of her career. 'What Have I Done' leads the way with shocking rawness and honesty. "I shot an arrow in your heart that I can't take back when I said you were my first love but you're not my last," Rimes sings in this letter to ex-husband Dean Sheremet.

Later, 'Borrowed' describes the pain she carried around while current husband Eddie Cibrian remained with now ex-wife Brandi Glanville. Judge her if you wish, but don't accuse Rimes of being anything less than genuine on this and similar songs. 'Spitfire' isn't an album for fans. It's an album for the oft-crucified Rimes.

Sprinkled between the drama is the classic soulful sound Rimes has refined on recent albums. The title track begins the album like a freight train tunneling down through a mountain. Her style evokes vibrant visuals -- it's a music video waiting to happen, even if it should be called 'Spit Fire' instead of 'Spitfire.'

'You Ain't Right' dives back into the same beat with a pure country farm girl lyric that doesn't seem like a natural fit at first -- after all, it's difficult to imagine the L.A.-based singer raising chickens. But somehow, she pulls it off as great theater.

From a production standpoint, a few songs could be cleaner, but Rimes' vocals continue to carry each tune like Lebron James carries the Miami Heat. 'You've Ruined Me' and 'Gasoline and Matches' (with Rob Thomas) are somewhat generic. 'Bottle' is peppy, but it never pops like some others. The one cringe-worthy moment is 'Just a Girl Like You,' a song that offers a sort of mea culpa to Glanville. That boat's not gonna sail, and while it might have salved Rimes' conscience, it takes away from the more sympathetic moments.

'Spitfire' is a fascinating album, and at times one feels like a voyeur listening to it. It's like breaking into your sister's dresser drawer and finding her diary, but high-quality songwriting keeps it from resembling a childish tabloid. With everything she's been through these last few years, Rimes never stepped away from the spotlight like so many (John Mayer) do when the media turns on them. It's not a stretch to say that the music, and specifically these songs, gave her the strength continue her career at full speed.

4 Stars

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