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And if the material on the new CD doesn't turn over any soil they didn't churn up on 1995's The Brooklyn Side, head muse Brian Henneman has in no way exhausted his painful, funny examination of white trash chic in the American Midwest. All sorts of musical familiarities are instantly identifiable in the Bottle Rockets' work -- John Mellencamp, Lynyrd Skynyrd, John Anderson, Neil Young, Uncle Tupelo (for whom Henneman used to roadie), Old 97's, Buck Owens, Georgia Satellites -- but a peculiar sense of humor and a twisted but poetic lyrical ability gives the Bottle Rockets an autonomous quality.

That whimsy is most obvious on the up-tempo songs and, in keeping with the theory of energy applicable to most modern releases, the Bottle Rockets kick off 24 Hours with two such amusing barroom tunes, "Kit Kat Clock" and "When I Was Dumb." The finest of the rockers, though, are "Indianapolis" (in which Henneman sings, "I'll puke if that jukebox plays John Cougar one more time"), the ironically yearning "Perfect Far Away" (about trying to get close to the stage at a Dolly Parton concert) and what should be an instant hit single, "Waitin' on a Train."

But for all the endearing and plaintive goofiness of the faster songs, Henneman's forte seems to be the ballads. "Smokin' 100's Alone," a fine entry in the cigarettes-as-companion-substitutes tradition of country music, is a lovely meditation on the inevitability of a relationship, while "Things You Didn't Know" is a fine stab at Crazy Horse melodicism. But "One of You" is perhaps the best song Henneman has written. It's a superb ballad about the revealing pre-hangover angst that happens when drinking has reached the point of weary predictability.

As any Fourth of July maniac can tell you, every package of bottle rockets contains a few duds -- and 24 Hours a Day is no exception. But when Henneman is at his peak, his musical pyrotechnics make for an amazing show indeed. (***)

-- Rick Koster

George Strait
Carrying Your Love with Me
MCA

Country radio is such a wasteland nowadays that the infrequent bright spots blaze forth like veritable signs from on high, like something you need to believe in just to make it through another half hour of Hot New Country. More often than not, you can count on Patty Loveless and Dwight Yoakam to deliver, and you can count on Mark Chesnutt and Alan Jackson to at least keep paying attention. Most everything else is just Ty or Rhett or Tracy Somebody.

In this dim landscape, the career of George Strait has burned like a supernova, delivering 15 years' worth of masterful singing, great songs and twangy musicianship, 15 years' worth of reasons to still believe in big-time, commercial country music. So it's with tremendous disappointment -- maybe despair would be a better word? -- that I say that Strait's latest, Carrying Your Love with Me, is hands down his worst CD ever. This is not to suggest that it's a bad record, necessarily, but it is so lifeless and so indistinguishable from everything else on the radio today that it might as well be. The musicianship behind Strait remains stellar, especially on up-tempo fare such as "Round About Way" and "I've Got a Funny Feeling," and Strait should get some kind of award for continuing to build songs around the gorgeous whine of Paul Franklin's steel guitar. ("Save the steels," as the T-shirts say.) But the songs all this crack playing is meant to support fall prey to every cliched contemporary country pose in the book, distancing the listener from any of the complicated emotional responses that once were country music's -- and George Strait's -- hallmark.

Starting with a man working up the guts to ask out a woman, then building to God finding the courage to create the universe, "The Nerve" wants to be filled with gratitude, but it's too smug and self-satisfied to even come close. "She'll Leave You with a Smile" is so condescending to women, and so trivializing of the pain that broken relationships bring, as to be almost insulting. Worse, on the handful of songs that actually aren't too bad -- and which, not coincidentally, were all written before things in Nashville changed so drastically -- Strait seems, 18 studio albums in, to merely be going through the motions. "Today my world slipped away," he sings at one point, covering Vern Gosdin's old hit, but he sounds like he could be singing about any old thing, like what he's singing about is beside the point. He sounds like Ty or Rhett or Tracy Somebody. (**)

-- David Cantwell

CDs rated on a one to five star scale.

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