Honkytonkville (MCA Nashville)
George Strait's previous studio album, 2001's The Road Less Traveled, felt like a grand summing-up, a rearview-mirror look at the paths he'd taken set against a sound as modern as this old-fashioned guy has ever explored.
As it happens, that less-traveled road led straight to Honkytonkville, and what sounds like a new beginning -- or at least a fresh return to the old beginning. On these dozen songs, George renews his vows with traditional country, and it sounds like this groom is happy to return to the altar.
Look no further than the opening track, "She Used to Say That to Me," for proof. It's an instant classic teed up by a deep, bellowing guitar lick that playfully hangs in the air just a little longer than necessary -- look up "twang" in a dictionary, and this sound is likely to pop out of the pages.
Classic country themes rule in Honkytonkville: infidelity, regret, cowboys, finding Jesus, the joys of honky-tonking Ã¢ÂÂ they're all here. A song about the sinister lure of the city? Got it -- "Look Who's Back From Town." One about drinking away a broken heart? No problem -- "Honkytonkville." A pledge of eternal love? There's one of those, too -- "As Far As It Goes." George sets 'em up and knocks 'em down with an ease and confidence that are second nature to him after two decades of record-making.
The only sour note is struck by the sticky-sweet "Heaven's Missing an Angel," which can't quite escape its title's status as a lame singles-bar pickup line. But maybe that's appropriate, too -- after all, in Honkytonkville, the bar is the place to be.