* = Poor** = fair*** = good**** = excellentGeorge...

CD REVIEWS

May 07, 1998|By J.D. Considine

* = Poor

** = fair

*** = good

**** = excellent

George Strait

One Step at a Time (MCA 70020)

It would be hard to imagine the country community ever producing the likes of a David Bowie. It's not that there's no room for Bowie-style outrageousness in the music; country fans just wouldn't stand for a star who reinvented himself every time out.

No, they'd rather stand by a man like George Strait. Over the last 18 years, Strait has released some 22 titles. Yet even though there has been remarkably little variation from album to album, Strait's stock has soared with each passing year. In fact, he has become one of the biggest names in Nashville -- despite not having the cross-over appeal of a Garth Brooks or LeAnn Rimes.

"One Step at a Time" isn't likely to change Strait's standing outside the country community; it's too down-home and unassuming to wow the raised-on-rock listeners who have swung over to Brooks. Country fans, on the other hand, can expect to be smitten, for on this album, Strait does everything he usually does, only better.

Start with the love songs. Where other men in country come across either as ardent suitors or beautiful losers, Strait is a classic quiet man, tempering his determination and devotion with manners and respect. It's a trait that sometimes leaves him seeming old-fashioned, but there's never any sense of stodginess in his singing, as there's always an undercurrent of manly vitality to his mellifluous baritone.

So when he leans into the lilting refrain of "I Just Want To Dance With You," what comes through is the heartfelt ardor of a man who not only loves dancing and courting in equal measure, but has no problem saying so. Even better, his enthusiasm is so plainly audible in his singing that Strait can easily bypass the sort of touchy-feely blather that leaves rock singer/songwriters seeming so ineffectual.

Likewise, "Maria" finds him investing such tenderness in his quietly crooned portrayal of a man who fell in love unexpectedly that the protagonist's intentions are clear long before the lyrics spell them out. Even "You Haven't Left Me Yet," the album's requisite heartbreak ballad, manages to make Strait seem more admirable than pitiable, insisting that "I'm done with fallin' apart" while admitting he still can't get her out of his heart. Even when abandoned, Strait remains steadfast and true.

Although his combination of courage and decency can be found elsewhere in the world, Strait has always made those seem like specifically Texan virtues. Sometimes he spells it out in the lyrics, as he does on this album with the witty "Remember the Alamo," but more often than not, he and his band will drive the point home through a flair for Western swing and old-style honky tonk.

With "One Step at a Time," however, Strait and company move in a different direction, drawing from the Tex-Mex norteno tradition. Granted, Strait's approach is closer to the sound of Marty Robbins' "El Paso" than to the traditional balladry offered by Los Lobos or Flaco Jimenez, but it nonetheless adds warmth to the likes of "I Just Want To Dance with You" and "Maria."

Still, the album's most pleasant surprise is Jim Lauderdale's "We Really Shouldn't Be Doing This," a witty bad-boy song that finds the usually straight-laced Strait protesting quite mildly about having been led into temptation. Not only is the tune's lightly rocking arrangement a pleasant change of pace within the album, but the good-hearted naughtiness Strait packs into his performance reminds us that even straight-arrow Texans occasionally bend.

*** Randy Travis

You and You Alone (Dreamworks 50034)

There's enough grit and twang in Randy Travis' gravelly baritone to ensure that he'll sound down-home no matter what -- and that's a good thing, considering how slick and calculating "You and You Alone" often seems. Sounding more like a marketing effort than a collection of songs, it tries to touch on every craze in contemporary country, from Eagles-style rock ("The Hole") to boot-scoot boogie ("I'm Still Here, You're Still Gone") to singer/songwriter sensitivity ("Horse Called Music"). Fortunately, that throw-it-against-the-wall approach does allow room for a few heartfelt tunes, meaning that "Stranger In My Mirror" and "Only Worse" end up sounding like the Travis of old. But on the whole, the album is slick and unconvincing.

* 1/2

J.D. Considine

JAZZ

Bill Laswell

Panthalassa: The Music of Miles Davis, 1969-1974 (Columbia 67909)

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