The men of Rascal Flatts have talked about how they took a step back and reassessed everything they were before returning to the studio to record 'Changed' in 2011. The result is a project that shows wholesale changes weren't necessary, but 'Tweaked' would have made a lousy album title.

The title-track is the biggest deviation from the stories the trio has told over the last 13 years. 'Changed' is personal, with lyrics that reveal scars and stories Gary LeVox has yet to tell, but his fans will love hearing. "I got off track I made mistakes / Back slid my way into that place / Where souls get lost lines get crossed / And the pain won't go away," he sings on this song of salvation. Overall, the cuts penned by a member of the group stand out above the others.

Aside from 'Banjo,' there's only one other song ('A Little Home') on the standard version of 'Changed' that tackles topics not of the heart. Love songs -- or melancholy songs about love's longings -- are this band's bread and butter, and there are some new approaches on tracks like the Joe Don Rooney co-written 'Sunrise' and the Jay DeMarcus penned 'Let It Hurt.' The second verse of this dark, brooding ballad is brilliant, and LeVox goes somewhere deep to bring it to life.

Critics of the group will find ammunition in a few songs that rely on repetition. Lines like "It's hot, hot, hot in here," or "She's got a suitcase packed in the trunk, trunk, trunk / She got a see you later song going bump, bump, bump," or "You keep lovin' me, lovin' me, lovin' me, lovin' me, lovin' me baby" look boyband-ish on paper, but with the steady production help of Dan Huff they come off as only mildly hokum. Often that's intentional. Let's admit it, some of Rascal Flatts' sillier songs ('Bob That Head,' 'Me and My Gang') are the highlights of their live shows.

You'll find all three members of the group taking lead vocals on the closing track, 'Let It Home' (although the deluxe version is well worth the money for the pure country fun of 'Friday' and three others). It's true that 'Changed' is the most country project they've released in 10 years, but longtime fans shouldn't be afraid of what they'll hear. The slick production and smooth harmonies are still as much of the group's identity as hair gel.

4 Stars

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