COUNTRY SINGER GARTH BROOKS RETURNS WITH 'FRESH HORSES'

Going head-to-head with the Beatles. It seems an impossible challenge. But Garth Brooks is optimistic about public reaction to his new album, ''Fresh Horses,'' which arrived in record stores last week, at the same time as a double CD of Beatles music. And to make matters even more competitive, Bruce Springsteen also has a new record out.

The Beatles and top-selling country musician Brooks are both on Capitol Records, which will have a merry Christmas season indeed. But is Brooks setting himself up for a disappointment?

After all, he has become somewhat accustomed to his albums rising to the No. 1 slot on the country - and pop - charts.

''I think we're in a no-lose situation,'' Brooks says. ''If we get pounded, it's by the Beatles, and everyone's expecting us to get pounded anyway. And if for some reason we hold our own, it's going to make country music, make Garth Brooks, look stronger. So we'll see.''

''Fresh Horses'' marks Brooks's first foray into the marketplace in two years with new material. (Country fans are accustomed to an album a year from their stars.)

It's an eclectic collection, with more of the big emotional ballads, story songs, and wild-eyed rockers that took Brooks to the top. His current single is ''The Fever,'' a clever rewriting of an Aerosmith number.

There's also an inspirational ballad dedicated to Oklahoma City, ''The Change.'' A native of Oklahoma whose parents still live there, Brooks is working on a video for the song with footage from the aftermath of the courthouse bombing.

Stylistic departures on the album come with the Celtic ''Ireland'' and the playful nursery-rhyme novelty, ''It's Midnight Cinderella.''

''Fresh Horses'' has more of Brooks's own songwriting than any of his prior albums. Most of the material was written within the last six months.

For most of 1995, the singer concentrated on overseas touring and spending time with his wife and two daughters. He also continued his fight against the sale of used compact discs (songwriters only get royalties on new sales).

A limited-edition greatest hits album plugged the gap for fans of the young musician, who has sold over 54 million albums since his debut in 1989.

Brooks will embark on a lengthy American tour next spring.

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