"Troubadour," George Strait (MCA Nashville)
Classic Strait. The melodies. The words. The steel guitar. It's all very him. That can be a good or bad thing. These 12 tracks feel like a formulaic collection of songs you've already heard. But familiarity feels comfortable sometimes, like a worn-in pair of jeans. This is that album. The title track has an earnest Garth Brooks-like quality. "River of Love" has a calypso beat he likely borrowed from Kenny Chesney. And a duet with the underappreciated Patty Loveless shines. Strait has sold more than 62 million records so far, and it sounds as if he's sticking with what works.
"Jeff Bates," Jeff Bates (Black River Music Group)
A hard-core baritone never sounded better. Jeff Bates' newest album, 13 tunes that rock back and forth effortlessly between the poignant and the witty, gives his heavy voice something to do. And the steady pace makes the entire album very listenable. "Lonesome" explores his tortured soul, and the modern-day Jesus story "He Wasn't Like Us" allows Bates to pull off an almost Christian-rock sound. The album includes a couple of cliche songs about being from the country but not enough to lower his score for originality.
"Lady Antebellum," Lady Antebellum (Capitol Records Nashville)
In a world of frontmen, you can count the number of great country bands on one hand. Well, you could. Now you have to add one more: Lady Antebellum. This debut album features an uncomplicated Southern rock feel and strong gritty harmonies that stay nice and deep. As on "Love Don't Live Here Anymore," when Charles Kelley pours soul all over the vocals. He shares lead singing duties with Hillary Scott, whose smoky voice fills the album with sultry charm. With few exceptions, most of the tracks soar with their fresh sound, making this good-mood music where even the downers are uppers.
"C'Mon," Keith Anderson (Columbia Nashville)
Anderson's been king of the midtempo country song since his debut in 2005. And his newest collection proves he can nail those songs that are nestled somewhere between a ballad and a rocker. The common thread here is a conviction in his dead-on voice. When he's crooning about his uncle's tattoo, or fast-talking his way through the title track about partying after a week of knuckle-bustin', you want to crawl into the amp to soak up every word. Especially during Anderson's own polished take on "Lost in This Moment," the song he wrote with John Rich that soared to No. 1 for Big & Rich.
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