Caitlin Cary has avoided the sophomore jinx and follows up her stunning 2002 solo debut, While You Weren't Looking, with an even better album. Every song on I'm Staying Out brims with confidence and an undercurrent of joy that makes the listener feel as if Cary is actually enjoying herself -- something that should happen on more albums, but simply doesn't. Even on the slower, sadder tracks, the smile on Cary's face is almost audible; we know that this woman simply loves to sing. Her voice has never sounded better, whether she's hitting the high notes on the title track or turning her soprano into a powerful growl on the album's hardest rocking song, "Cello Girl", an experimental number that starts out with a lovely string arrangement which quickly escalates to a thumping beat and ends with all the instruments screaming out over a spoken word outro by one of Cary's favorite novelists (and former teachers), Lee Smith. Another standout is "Sleeping In On Sunday", penned by Mike Daly, a song perfectly suited for Cary's comforting delivery that conjures up the laziness of a quiet Sunday afternoon. "Please Break My Heart", written by Cary and Thad Cockrell (whose duet on "Thicks Wall Down" was the highlight of While You Weren't Looking), could trump the sadness of many country classics with its longing lyrics and Floyd Crameresque piano tinklings. On "Lorraine Today", Cary continues her tradition of creating full-fleshed characters in her songs. Cary is joined on three tracks by Mary Chapin Carpenter, who harmonizes with her so seamlessly that they sound as if they were born to sing together. Other guests include former R.E.M. producers Mitch Easter and Don Dixon as well as Greg Humphreys of Hobex. Former Black Crowes guitarist Audley Freed shows up on guitar, and cellist Jane Scarpantoni (whose album credits include the Beastie Boys and Bruce Springsteen) shows up on, naturally, "Cello Girl". But Cary also wisely chose to keep her touring accompanists on this album as well: keyboardist Jen Gundernman, bassist Dave Bartholomew, guitarist Brian Dennis, and drummer Jon Wurster all return from While You Weren't Looking. This familiarity is quickly breeding a "Caitlin Cary sound," a sort of southern pop that feels much more valuable than the word "pop" suggests. While it's sometimes easy to compare Cary's voice and arrangements to those of Natalie Merchant (especially on the breezy, stomping "You Don't Have To Hide"), Cary's confidence in her own voice shines through. Cary isn't afraid to try new things on I'm Staying Out, but she remains close enough to the spirit of her first album to construct a solid sound that will become identified as her own. If only she'd play more of the violin that Whiskeytown fans loved so much (as she does so beautifully to open up "Beauty Fades"), this would have been a perfect album. Still, it comes as close as any album has this year, not only to perfection but also to simple elegance.