George Jones
It Don't Get Any Better Than This

Don Walser
Down at the Sky-Vue Drive-In

Music critics love to play the "greatest whatever" game. But the problem with that is, music isn't quantitative, it's qualitative. Sure, any dedicated listener has his or her idea of what is best, but to say that either George Jones or Don Walser is "the best" is to deny that the other -- or any other, for that matter -- just might be as good. And that, of course, would be denying the truth, which in music isn't as much a matter of the mind as it is of the heart.

Logic aside, though, to say that George Jones just may be the greatest country singer ever -- or at least alive, which in Jones's case is a blessing -- is hardly a false assertion; it's merely a wrong-headed approach to appreciating his amazing gifts. Few singers have mastered the effortless vocal swoops and quakes that, in the best C&W, accentuate a song's emotional content, nor do they wield them with Jones's near-mystical sense of timing. While many of his peers today are lost in the heartless world of the new Nashville (a place where callow youth rules, and the veterans are frequently set adrift), Jones has been making a string of quality releases that never forsake the music's past, yet can survive in contemporary circles.

It Don't Get Any Better Than This is very nearly truth in advertising: As for latter-day Jones releases (i.e., post-sobriety), they don't get too much better than this, thanks, in large part, to the old-school production approach of Music City veteran Norro Wilson. The best thing about this effort is that it is so unabashedly slick, in the same manner country used to be 25 years ago, back when the Beaumont native was doing his finest work. The first track, Bobby Braddock's "Wild Irish Rose," is just the sort of venerable classic the young bucks wouldn't touch -- a sappy tale of a drunken vet who gets committed to the booby hatch -- but has exactly the kind of honky-tonk pathos that made country music the voice of America's great rural unwashed.

Better Than This also includes the jokey little Braddock number "Small Y'all," another essential slice of the Possum's oeuvre, and a surplus of the weepers from which he's famous for wringing every last tear. Even the obligatory star salute on the title track -- with guests like Waylon, Willie, Merle Haggard, Johnny Cash and Bobby Bare -- is a chuckle, so long as you love that old C&W style enough to enjoy the undeniable corn that was part of it. Indeed, the mere fact that Jones is still making valid, lively music, and still singing like God's own country boy, is reason enough to savor this release.

Over in Austin, there are folks who claim Don Walser as rightful owner of the "best ever" tag. And yes, he's a great one indeed, but the greatest? I've heard the man countless times, even co-produced a track by him on an Austin country compilation, but I can't quite buy that superlative. Walser's greatness is as much based on spirit as it is his considerable abilities as a yodeler, crooner and good-time country warbler. His third major release, Down at the Sky-Vue Drive-In, as fine as it is in spots, displays the increasingly problematic nature of some of his work.

While Asleep at the Wheel's Ray Benson pulled off a nifty balancing act on Walser's last two CDs, mixing raw and dusty West Texas barroom attributes with modern-day considerations, far too often the music on Sky-Vue Drive-In sounds too much like a Wheel album. Sometimes Benson's signature touch works (as on the cantering "Hearts Made of Stone," a duet with Mandy Barnett), but the untutored nature of Walser's voice only becomes more prominent as the arrangements become too slick. As heartfelt as Don's own tunes here may be, their rather slight nature pales in the company of such classics as Hank Locklin's "Please Help Me I'm Falling," Jimmie Rodgers's "In My Dear Old Southern Home," the Louvin Brothers' "Are You Teasing Me?" and Johnny Bush's "An Eye for an Eye."

There's no denying that Don Walser is a Texas treasure, and that greatness surrounds him. But increasingly, it's looking like Walser don't get any better on record than better-than-average. It Don't Get Any Better Than This (*** 1/2); Down at the Sky-Vue Drive-In (***)

-- Rob Patterson

Smashing Pumpkins

Like Don Quixote and his windmill, the leading lights of alternative rock defined themselves by what they were fighting. To varying degrees and with distinct stylistic differences, Kurt Cobain, Eddie Vedder, Trent Reznor and Smashing Pumpkins' Billy Corgan battled the jocks who beat on them in high school (and whose likes grew up to populate their mosh pits). But while the other guys more or less opposed the music-business-as-usual, Corgan enthusiastically embraced it. He always wanted to be a rock star, and he's never been more successful at it than on Adore.

Corgan is a notorious egotist and perfectionist, and there are certain drummers who might add "son of a bitch" to that list. (Joey Waronker quit Beck's band to join the Pumpkins at double his salary, then bailed after two weeks. Kenny Aronoff, formerly with John Mellencamp, now has the gig.) And while you have to give him credit for crafting amazingly ornate walls of sound in the studio, anyone with half a brain had to be a little disappointed with what he did with them when finished. On Gish, Siamese Dream and Melon Collie and the Infinite Sadness, those mighty musical constructions were employed by the man to vent his raging angst and revel in his terminal misery -- you know, that whole sorry rat-in-a-cage trip.

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