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Beyond The Blue Neon
Beyond The Blue Neon
Price: $9.49

5.0 out of 5 stars Breezy, Under-Appreciated Masterpiece, July 2, 2014
This review is from: Beyond The Blue Neon (MP3 Music)
Back in 1989, I remember my brother and I got to each pick out a cassette. I picked Prince's BATMAN soundtrack, and he picked George Strait's BEYOND THE BLUE NEON. Though I've still got a soft spot for that BATMAN soundtrack, I can easily concede that he had the better taste that day. I'd grown up listening to country music, but by that point I was sick of it (for several reasons). Even still, I got into this album. Maybe because the songs weren't the posturing anthems that were starting to take over, or because the instrumentation here is so well developed.

Just listen to "Oh Me, Oh My Sweet Baby". It's not a terribly complex song lyrically, but with the full band swinging on it - check out that fiddle and piano, especially! - it's irresistibly fun. It reminds me in some ways of "All My Ex's Live in Texas", only with less interesting lyrics. A stronger example is "Ace in the Hole", which is both catchy and well-written. I can never hear it, though, without thinking of the cover version sung by the hound, Jasper, for Chuck E. Cheese! (It's that cover version that plays over the end credits of SWINGERS.)

The slower songs here are just as effective as the ditties. Lead single "Baby's Gotten Good at Goodbye" is a truly perfect recording that has as much power today as it did a quarter century ago. "What's Going On in Your World" is one of the greatest drunk dial songs ever written, though I don't think anyone necessarily thinks about it as being one. The title song, "Beyond the Blue Neon", and penultimate track, "Too Much of Too Little", are just as strong as the singles.

Trivia: "Overnight Success" was the single to break Strait's #1 streak, peaking at #8 on Billboard. Though it was included in the 1991 compilation TEN STRAIT HITS, Strait himself omitted it from 1995's STRAIT OUT OF THE BOX, and it appears dead last on 22 MORE HITS - suggesting that he's never quite forgiven the single for ending his run of #1's.


If You Ain't Lovin', You Ain't Livin'
If You Ain't Lovin', You Ain't Livin'
Price: $9.49

4.0 out of 5 stars Solid B-Material, July 2, 2014
I've always felt that IF YOU AIN'T LOVIN', YOU AIN'T LIVIN' should have been released between #7 and OCEAN FRONT PROPERTY, rather than between OFP and BEYOND THE BLUE NEON. What characterized #7 is not so much the lyrics or even overall melody of its songs, so much as its instrumentation and arrangements. That's really the case here, too. I rarely find myself in the mood to revisit this album, and whenever I do, I find myself zoning out and just sort of getting lost in the fiddle, steel, and piano more than the lyrics or even Strait's vocals. When the vocalist interrupting your instrumental album is George Strait, you've done *something* right.

The catchy title track was penned by Tommy Collins and originally a #1 hit for Faron Young in 1954. Collins was befriended by Strait's influence, Merle Haggard (Hag's song "Leonard" is a tribute to Collins). It's not an overt thesis declaration, but upon consideration I've finally come to see that that song became the title track and opening cut because this album is all about the musicianship, starting in the Bakersfield sound, but quickly expanding to Western Swing on the very next cut ("Under These Conditions") and nearly a full-blown Sinatra-esque lounge jazz by the ending "Back to Bein' Me".

Rumor has circulated all these years that "Baby Blue" was selected by Strait as a subtle tribute to his daughter, whom he lost in a car accident. I don't know if it's true, but that recording has felt a lot more poignant and sadder to me ever since I first read that speculation. Regardless of the veracity of that rumor, the recording remains one of the most time-stopping in Strait's entire discography. Sometimes I get lost in that song and find myself playing it over and over again, not even sure why I want to be in that melancholy but unwilling to leave it until I've sung along with it for four or five times in a row.

Strait must have been fond of these songs, though, because the B-sides for the first two singles from this album's successor, BEYOND THE BLUE NEON, were both selected from IF YOU AIN'T LOVIN', YOU AIN'T LIVIN' The B-side for "Baby's Gotten Good at Goodbye" was "Bigger Man Than Me" (these two songs appear back-to-back in this order on Disc 3 of 1995's STRAIT OUT OF THE BOX), and the B-side to "What's Going On in Your World" was "Let's Get Down to It". Later, in 1991, "Baby Blue", itself having already been a #1 hit single, was the B-side to "You Know Me Better Than That".


George Strait's Greatest Hits, Volume Two
George Strait's Greatest Hits, Volume Two
Price: $8.99

5.0 out of 5 stars You Don't Need This Compilation, but You Need What It Compiles, July 2, 2014
Playlists have made compilation albums like GREATEST HITS VOLUME TWO more or less obsolete, but they are still handy as snapshots of a specific era in a discography, or as introductory primers for new fans. The mid-to-late 80's is one of my two personal favorite Strait eras (the other being the late, post-STRAIT OUT OF THE BOX 90's covered on LATEST GREATEST STRAITEST HITS). Presenting these ten songs (his eleventh through twentieth singles) in their released-to-radio chronology means that these songs aren't arranged here to create a specific album feel. That kind of dampens things a bit, but even if the set is only as strong as the sum of its parts, those parts are awfully good.

Though there's a lot of growth and difference between the four albums represented here, these specific songs are homogeneous enough that no section of GREATEST HITS VOLUME TWO feels particularly conspicuous, although the two ballads from #7 ("Nobody in His Right Mind Would've Left Her" and "It Ain't Cool to Be Crazy About You") have always existed in my mind as a one-two tandem and they're followed by the three singles from the OCEAN FRONT PROPERTY album, all of which featured Strait's backing band Ace in the Hole instead of the regular studio session players. That gives what on vinyl and cassette constituted "Side 2" something of a curious change in tone. Side 1's content from DOES FORT WORTH EVER CROSS YOUR MIND and SOMETHING SPECIAL doesn't feel as distinguishable.

It's hard to really recommend a hits compilation in the digital playlist era, and yet it's also impossible to suggest passing on this material. Put it this way: Your library may not need GREATEST HITS VOLUME TWO, but it does need these songs.


Ocean Front Property
Ocean Front Property
Price: $9.49

5.0 out of 5 stars My Heart Won't Wander Very Far from "Ocean Front Property", July 1, 2014
This review is from: Ocean Front Property (MP3 Music)
OCEAN FRONT PROPERTY was the first album on which George Strait used his stage show backing band, Ace in the Hole. They played on all three of the album's singles: the terrific title song, as well as "All My Ex's Live in Texas" and "Am I Blue". There's a subtle, but distinct, looseness to the instrumentation on those three cuts that befits those tracks - particularly "Am I Blue", which could have fallen flat as too straightforward a song, but in the hands of Ace in the Hole becomes a delightful little romp.

The other seven album tracks sound great, too, sustaining the livelier aesthetic established on the Ace in the Hole cuts. This album really breathes, with Strait shifting effortlessly from two-steppers to ballads, and from whimsy to heartbreak. One thing that's interesting, particularly to reflect on all these years later, is the presence of lyrics that reflect a certain upper-middle class socioeconomic position. For instance, "Someone's Walking Around Upstairs" references a home with two levels, because the master bedroom where the narrator's ex now shares with someone new is upstairs. "You Can't Buy Your Way out of the Blues" is all about how all the luxurious self-indulgences in the world won't heal a heartache. "Without You Here" is about a woman who is miserable on her "two week Caribbean cruise" because she misses her husband of twenty years. Even the title track, playful though it is, is built on the fanciful notion of selling ocean front property in Arizona (and throwing in the Golden Gate Bridge free) to a woman who believes the narrator doesn't love her and wouldn't miss her.

On the other end of the spectrum is "My Heart Won't Wander Very Far from You", a song about a narrator reassuring his wife that he appreciates all she's done for him so much that he's not even tempted by the flirtations of a "barroom queen". The laundry list of things his wife has done are classic, working-class country ("teach the young ones how to wrassle, straighten out my fishin' tackle").

It would be going too far to say that any of the album tracks "should" have been singles, but that doesn't mean they're not solid album tracks. OCEAN FRONT PROPERTY has a specific personality that makes it as appealing today as it was in 1987. For my money, it's the most enjoyable album King George released throughout the 1980's, and one of the top 5 of his illustrious career.


#7
#7
Price: $9.49

4.0 out of 5 stars Would Have Been a Killer Ray Price Album, June 29, 2014
This review is from: #7 (MP3 Music)
Like its predecessor, SOMETHING SPECIAL, #7 only generated a pair of singles for radio: "Nobody in His Right Mind Would've Left Her" and "It Ain't Cool to Be Crazy About You". Both songs have an odd melody, which would actually have made them perfectly suited for inclusion on the SOMETHING SPECIAL album; here, they almost feel intrusive. Swap either of those two singles for SOMETHING SPECIAL's "Dance Time in Texas" and I think both albums become even stronger. You could swap the other #7 single for SPECIAL's "Lefty's Gone", I suppose, though that's such an interesting sounding song that it really should be where it is.

Merle Haggard's influence is all over George Strait's earlier albums, but despite Hag being the gateway to Bob Wills (see: "Deep Water"), I've come to feel that #7 is more a channeling of Ray Price. These songs, from content to arrangement, evoke Price's easygoing honky tonk crooning and shuffle.

The problem for many listeners with #7 is that these songs aren't particularly deep or clever, or even very interesting. Still, it's a likable enough album that's best enjoyed as a standalone work. Unlike other Strait albums that aim for your mind or your heart, #7 is just trying to get into your ears and take control of your feet. It's not a terribly complex ambition, but on that level, Strait delivered the goods.

One thing's for sure: We're not going to see the likes of #7 from anyone in mainstream country with nearly the kind of stature Strait enjoyed at the time he cut this album.


Something Special
Something Special
Price: $9.49

4.0 out of 5 stars Come for the Singles, but Stay for the Gems, June 29, 2014
This review is from: Something Special (MP3 Music)
SOMETHING SPECIAL was the follow-up to 1984's DOES FORT WORTH EVER CROSS YOUR MIND, an album that won Album of the Year honors from both the Academy of Country Music and the Country Music Association. This album is decidedly *not* DOES FORT WORTH... II. Instead, it seems Strait set out to find the most interesting sounding songs he could find, and if that was indeed his objective, he nailed it.

Just two singles came from this album ("The Chair", one of the most interesting and coolest sounding songs anyone has ever cut, and the title track, "You're Something Special to Me"), so it may be easy for radio listeners to gloss over this one, but what makes SOMETHING SPECIAL stand out is the concentration of songs that have a really unusual melody and sound. Strait himself selected fully half of the album (the two singles, plus "Haven't You Heard", "In Too Deep", and "Lefty's Gone") for inclusion in 1995's STRAIT OUT OF THE BOX.

These songs dominate the album, to the point that it seems the title track, "You're Something Special to Me" had to open the record because otherwise it would have been drowned by its more peculiar-sounding companions. (That's my theory, because otherwise "Dance Time in Texas" seems like the obvious choice to be the first track.) So, yeah, you can find "The Chair" and "You're Something Special" on several compilations, but if you limit yourself to these, you're missing out on some of the more interesting recordings in Strait's entire discography.


George Strait's Greatest Hits
George Strait's Greatest Hits
Price: $9.49

5.0 out of 5 stars Solid Collection of Terrific Material...but Unnecessary, June 28, 2014
This compilation presents George Strait's first ten singles, taken from his first three albums, and sequenced in their radio-release order. It's rare to look at a compilation of any artist with the kind of longevity Strait has enjoyed and find anything other than footnotes. Instead, what we find on GREATEST HITS is a showcase of just how strongly Strait announced himself as a country music artist in only three years. There's his debut single, "Unwound", featuring Rob Hajacos's mesmerizing fiddle; Strait's iconic cover of Terry Stafford's "Amarillo by Morning"; his first #1 single, "Fool Hearted Memory", and others that have withstood the test of time so far. To wit: those three songs, and four others ("Marina Del Rey", "A Fire I Can't Put Out", "You Look So Good in Love", and "Let's Fall to Pieces Together") were all played in Strait's final regular concert at AT&T Stadium in Arlington on 7 June 2014. Not because he was obligated to represent his entire discography, but because those songs have endured and continue to win over listeners discovering them decades after they were first recorded.

Strait's father balked at the message of "Down and Out", which led to the singer more or less disavowing it from his discography (hence its absence on all subsequent compilations), so that makes its presence here something of a novelty. It's not a particularly strong song, though, so its inclusion here is only really of interest to songwriters Dean Dillon and Frank Dycus, who stand to earn some royalties off it.

The problem with GREATEST HITS isn't its content; it's that in the digital playlist era, compilations like this are entirely extraneous. In the analog days, of course, having these songs collected in one place was exciting and convenient - especially if your library was built around vinyl. If you're new to Strait's music, these songs (save the aforementioned "Down and Out") have resurfaced on several other compilations - including 1995's terrific STRAIT OUT OF THE BOX, but for the more timid newbies, a set like ICON 2: BEST OF GEORGE STRAIT should suffice. 50 NUMBER ONES and 22 MORE HITS are also solid, though the former contains several harshly edited abridgments.


Does Fort Worth Ever Cross Your Mind
Does Fort Worth Ever Cross Your Mind
Price: $8.99

4.0 out of 5 stars 30 Years Later, Yes, This One Still Crosses My Mind, June 24, 2014
The first of three albums to date to win Album of the Year from both the Academy of Country Music *and* the Country Music Association, DOES FORT WORTH EVER CROSS YOUR MIND marks a palpable step forward in the evolution of George Strait's music. The three singles, including the title track, "The Cowboy Rides Away", and "The Fireman", all loom large even today thirty years later. They're not why the album is so terrific, though. Strait sounds more in command of his balladry here than on his first three albums - perhaps because he was co-producing for the first time in his career, at the behest of Jimmy Bowen.

Though we can trace different songs to different influences ("The Fireman" could have been cut by George Jones; "You're Dancing This Dance All Wrong" by Conway Twitty), Strait owns all ten of these recordings. For the first time in his discography, we're able to hear what "a George Strait record" truly is. It's energetic, it's maudlin, it's a wild night out on the cusp of love, and it's an even longer night falling out of it. My only complaint is that I will never understand the thinking behind the sequencing of this album. How did it make more sense to close with "The Fireman" than with "The Cowboy Rides Away"?!

That qualm aside, FORT WORTH isn't just a noteworthy album from yesteryear; it's a solid album that holds up surprisingly well today, thirty years later (even if the compliment "out of sight", paid to Merle Haggard, on "Honky Tonk Saturday Night" is awfully dated).


Right Or Wrong
Right Or Wrong
Price: $9.49

3.0 out of 5 stars More Relevant Than Necessarily Interesting, June 24, 2014
This review is from: Right Or Wrong (MP3 Music)
Talk about gumption! After having already cut his first two albums with producer Blake Mevis, and eight songs already in the can for this third release, still-new artist George Strait spoke up and called for a new producer to finish the RIGHT OR WRONG record. Mevis felt that Strait's chances at success lied in pop-country aesthetics. MCA sided with Strait on the basis that they weren't hearing any obvious radio hits in the eight songs already cut with Mevis. In came veteran producer Ray Baker. What I think we see standing back 31 years later is that even having eschewed the Mevis recordings, there are two albums that make up RIGHT OR WRONG.

The primary album, made most obvious by singles "You Look so Good in Love" and "Let's Fall to Pieces Together", is a focus on mid-tempo ballads and waltzes, inspired by Strait's radio success with songs like "Fool Hearted Memory" and "Marina del Rey". The entire second half of the album falls into this range, and in truth can feel monotonous.

Then there's the other little album teased if you know where to look for it, and that's a celebration of Merle Haggard. Producer Baker had worked with Hag already on his GOING WHERE THE LONELY GO album, and also on THAT'S THE WAY LOVE GOES, released the same year as Strait's RIGHT OR WRONG. This album's penultimate cut, "Our Paths May Never Cross", was penned by Haggard and recorded on his own 1980 album, BACK TO THE BARROOMS.

We're used to thinking of Strait as a disciple of Bob Wills and His Texas Playboys, but it's worth remembering that Strait himself has acknowledged that it was really through Haggard that he became acquainted with Wills. Though "Right or Wrong" itself had been around for decades, it's not a coincidence that Hag himself had hit #1 with a cover of it just nine years before Strait did the same. And, I would argue, Strait seems to be affecting a Haggard vocal on "A Little Heaven's Rubbing Off on Me"; he certainly doesn't sound like himself on that cut.

It's a shame that the ballads and waltzes ran roughshod over what was clearly an itch of Strait's at the time. As it is, despite the strength of the singles (especially "Let's Fall to Pieces Together"), RIGHT OR WRONG lacks enough energy and oomph to stand out in a discography as storied as Strait's. Though I'm not really in love with it overall, it's important to recognize how pivotal this record was in empowering Strait to assert himself over his musical direction. If he'd capitulated to Blake Mevis, if MCA hadn't supported him, and/or if Ray Baker hadn't understood what Strait was trying to do, who knows whether we wind up talking about King George in 2014!

Note: Two of the songs recorded with Mevis that were scrapped were later released in STRAIT OUT OF THE BOX: "Any Old Love Won't Do" and "What Would Your Memories Do". The former would have fit in fine with the final album, though the background vocals are peculiar and make clear the schism over artistic direction for the album.


Strait From The Heart
Strait From The Heart
Price: $9.49

4.0 out of 5 stars Far More of a Departure from Its Predecessor Than First Appears, June 22, 2014
This review is from: Strait From The Heart (MP3 Music)
If played back-to-back, STRAIT FROM THE HEART feels like a natural continuation of STRAIT COUNTRY. There's nothing overtly out of sorts here, and yet if you scratch beneath the surface, it becomes obvious that while Strait had his mind on the country music of yesteryear when he cut STRAIT COUNTRY, STRAIT FROM THE HEART reveals instead an artist living in the present.

Where STRAIT COUNTRY established George Strait as an earnest student of his predecessors in country music, his sophomore album is something of an appraisal of what he found in then-contemporary country music to his liking. "Amarillo by Morning" had already been around for nine years after co-writer Terry Stafford's recording hit in 1973, and in the intervening years had been covered successfully by Chris LeDoux. It was Strait's take on the song that quickly became definitive.

"Heartbroke", penned by Guy Clark, Strait found on Rodney Crowell's 1980 album, BUT WHAT WILL THE NEIGHBORS THING. "Honky Tonk Crazy", for instance, was previously cut by Keith Whitley for his 1982 SOMEWHERE BETWEEN album (later issued on CD in expanded form as SAD SONGS & WALTZES). Strait also mined that Whitley record for "Does Fort Worth Ever Cross Your Mind". The rest of the album's original tunes reflect Strait's interest in bringing something new to the mix, rather than rely on raiding the discographies of his contemporaries and predecessors. His own "I Can't See Texas from Here" would have been doomed as a single, though it was issued as the B-side to the "Marina del Rey" single, so non-album buyers were still exposed to it.

It can be strange, in 2014, to perceive an album recorded in 1982 as being contemporary-minded, but like everything else Strait has ever done in his career, these choices were made not to chase fads, but instead to recognize that living in the past was not going to be a healthy career model. Every time Strait has reinvented his sound (roughly every five years), and that pattern can be traced directly to the consciousness of STRAIT FROM THE HEART.


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