When Shawn McDonald's Sparrow debut appeared in 2004, listeners were only getting their first tastes of laid-back acoustic pop by the likes of mainstream artists Jack Johnson, John Mayer and Jason Mraz. While it didn't stray far from the troubadour formula made popular by Shaun Mullins and Edwin McCain in the late '90s, acoustic pop gained popularity with its counter-act to the increasingly heavy pop-metal of acts like Nickelback. McDonald made a name for himself with a similar formula of mellow guitar and hip-hop beats. Two years later, with a fan base in tow, his second studio effort took the same down-home acoustic folk and added enough experimentation to distinguish it from its predecessor without taking too much of a detour. The listeners he won over with his stripped-down earthiness in the past should feel the same satisfaction after digesting Ripen. This time around, he pounds home the theme of taking what we have and making it beautiful. The way to do this, he insists, is by continually acknowledging our nothingness before God, as heard on tracks like "Confess," "I Am Nothing" and "Ramblings of a Beggar." Some of the most potent acoustic pop tracks are "Free" — which appeared on Wow Hits 2006 — "Reason," and "Pour Out," a vulnerable gem with the crystal-clear acoustic vibe of Fleetwood Mac's "Landslide." The best departure is the flamenco fantasy "Imago," with its rhythmic picking by guest guitarist Roy Brewer and a "Dido"-like trance beat. All in all, Ripen showed enough growth to widen McDonald's group of core listeners well beyond the coffeehouse crowd. It is extremely likeable for folk-pop enthusiasts and the world at large.