Albums from the Lost & Found: Chris Gaines' Greatest Hits

by Jeff Fiedler

Albums from the Lost & Found is a regular feature on thegreatalbums.com in which contributor Jeff Fiedler reviews and helps us rediscover great pop albums that seem to have been lost to time.

One of the most misunderstood albums of all-time, Chris Gaines’ Greatest Hits, may have fared poorly both at record stores and with critics, but if you really take the time to sit down and absorb it, it’s hard not to admire the sheer conceptual brilliance of it, even if the execution is somewhat flawed.

The weird thing about the album isn’t the music so much as it is that it seems as if there were creative differences between all parties in how to market the album. Nearly all of the packaging lists the album title as Greatest Hits and the artist as Chris Gaines, while the flip side of the CD booklet bears the title In the Life of Chris Gaines and the artist as Garth Brooks (upon the CD’s original release, many of the copies had the CD booklet flipped over to make Garth Brooks’ name visible, assumedly to boost sales, although it may have had exactly the opposite effect, and one wonders in hindsight if the album might not have been so derided had Brooks and Capitol Records simply gone all-out and not made any comment at all about Gaines’ real identity).

As for why Brooks even took on an alter ego in the first place, it was never well-explained, leading people to think Brooks had simply lost his mind, but “Chris Gaines” was simply the main character in a movie (entitled The Lamb) starring Brooks as a troubled and reclusive pop/R&B star looking to revive his career after a violent car crash nearly ended his life. The CD was intended to both serve as the soundtrack for the movie while doubling as a promotional gimmick to pique people’s curiosity and entice them into seeing the film, which wound up getting scrapped after the CD tanked.

It was a remarkably creative move. The CD booklet and liner notes present the disc as any other greatest-hits package by a real entity, complete with stories-behind-each-song commentary from “Chris,” a detailed bio about Gaines’ life, and even the cover artwork for all of the fictional character’s past studio albums (the liner notes even go so far as to detail which songs hail from each of these technically-non-existent albums). The packaging really goes all-out in an attempt to makes Gaines seem real, and you can’t help but be fascinated by the imagination that was involved.

And as for the music? Keep in mind that this record is presented as a “Greatest Hits” disc of technically-all-new music from a fictional veteran rock star. That is as creative a plot for a concept album as has ever been devised, and one that – on paper, at least – is probably a songwriter’s nightmare assignment. Think about it. You have to sit down and write a full album of material where every last song not only has to be strong enough to sound like it could have legitimately been a radio hit but during the particular year that the writers have attached to it as well (that way, there’s some sense of evolution in the artist’s sound as you listen to the songs in their supposed chronological order, which involves starting with the last track on the disc and working backwards). In that regard, this truly is the most ambitious and endlessly inventive album Brooks has ever made.

Luckily, they found songwriters who were up to the task in Gordon Kennedy, Tommy Sims, and Wayne Kirkpatrick, the songwriting team that previously gave us Eric Clapton’s “Change the World.” The three men deliver all the pop hooks and catchy melodies necessary to make this legitimately sound like a hits compilation, and Kennedy even joins in on the fun and helms the lead vocal – as “Tommy Levitz” – on a track (“My Love Tells Me So”) credited to the band where Gaines supposedly got his start, Crush.

Gaines’ “solo career” officially begins with the Poco-flavored country-rock of “Digging for Gold” and the lovely late-Beatles-tinged balladry of “Maybe.”  From there, Gaines goes through a period of trying on various styles, from the Dylan-styled folk-rock of Fornucopia’s “Main Street” (a real highlight, and one co-written – for real – by country great Trisha Yearwood) to the slightly-Prince-tinged light funk of the bitter “Way of the Girl” to the late-‘90s-modern-rock of Apostle’s “Unsigned Letter,” which sounds like a first-rate lost single from the Wallflowers (it sounds so perfect for that band, in fact, that Jakob Dylan really ought to consider covering it at some point). By his album Triangle, Gaines has settled into a more adult-contemporary-R&B vibe not unlike that of Babyface or the Tony Rich Project. You wouldn’t think that Garth Brooks could actually pull off this material, but Brooks seems to be having a whole lot of fun here shedding his normal tendencies as a country singer and injecting some real soul into the proceedings, and both his performances and the quality of the songwriting on “Driftin’ Away” and “That’s the Way I Remember It” are real knockouts and the two best cuts on the disc.

The hits package is rounded out by the similarly Babyface-esque ballad “Lost in You” and the rap-tinged “Right Now,” which works in the chorus of the Youngbloods’ Woodstock-era anthem “Get Together” for its hook. The two cuts are labeled as having been especially recorded for the compilation as new material for fans who already own the previous albums anthologized here. (These albums don’t actually exist, of course, but that’s just how much fun the involved parties have in trying to make this seem like any other standard greatest-hits package from the late ‘90s.)

Naturally, the album having bombed, it’s a regular fixture in the budget-bins at any used record shop and can easily be purchased for a mere dollar or two. Even if you’re not much of a Garth Brooks fan, it’s still worth the price of admission just to admire all the creativity that was involved in the packaging and presentation and the songcraft that was required to make this seem like an actual hits compilation. Garth’s career as a country singer may have never quite recovered after the botched marketing of this disc, but he’s also never made a more creative album than this, and for that alone, I’ve got to tip my cowboy hat to him.