Ladies and gentlemen, we now live in a world where not even King George remains relevant on country radio. Isn’t that the sad, ever present revelation of the living—that time marches on, and no matter how important something was in the past, the present moves forward, callously at times, and the greatest of efforts are relegated to moments of fond reminiscing.
But even though George Strait is officially off the road and out of favor with radio, he’s certainly not out to pasture. Surprising everyone in late September, he released Cold Beer Conversation on less than a week’s notice. Strait didn’t pull a BeyoncÃ© or Eric Church per se, but it was close, and showed he’s not only far from going away, he’s still willing to work a little spontaneity into his career.
Some could be heard groaning simply from the title of this record. Great, was even George Strait going Bro-Country now? Cold Beer Conversation is nowhere close to Bro-Country, but it is in many respects a drinking album—not cover to cover, but it is bookended and bisected by drinking songs for the most part, and of a mostly jovial, and positive variety.
Strait knows his audience and what he does best, and if nothing else, you can be guaranteed he’s not going to stray too far off of that path. You can call him King George, or you can call him Captain Consistency. Strait is never going to lay a stinker, and he’s never going to deliver you some creative masterpiece. But you can be assured if you put a George Strait record on, it will stay on because it will be entertaining enough to not give you a reason to turn it off, and few, if any within ear shot will find themselves offended.
“It Was Love” is a really great way to start off this record. Where today’s country stars all rely on buzzwords and acrobatics in the songwriting and production, Strait and songwriter Keith Gattis understand that a subtle working of the chords, and the right little hitches and turns here and there combined with a good lyric can go a long way. Gattis, Dean Dillon, Jamey Johnson, Brandy Clark, Buddy Cannon, Bill Anderson, and Strait’s son Bubba are included on an impressive list of songwriting contributors for Cold Beer Conversation.
Thirteen tracks exude decent variety, but there is a slew of “heard this song before, just differently” moments, especially when it comes to the drinking songs. “Stop and Drink” is yet another play on the switching of “drink” and “think” performed umpteen times, and you can probably guess where the song “Cheaper Than a Shrink” goes. And “Take Me to Texas” written by Brandy Clark and Shane McAnally adds yet another track to the tiresome march of songs comparing Texas to heaven (even if it’s true). Granted, all of these songs are written and performed well, but are just slight variations on previous efforts.
There’s also a couple of … well, let’s call them “island” songs. “Let It Go” feels like it’s going in the whole beachy direction but doesn’t fully commit, until the steel drums come in and you can’t help fight back visions of Kenny Chesney. “Wish You Well” is even less subtle in its embracing of isle latitudes, despite being the best exposition of steel guitar on the album.
I still don’t know what it is about beach songs and big time country singers. Perhaps they get to spend so much time on the sand they feel obligated to sing about it at least once or twice on every album, and it’s usually about somewhere south of the border. Meanwhile your average country fan’s experience with paradise is budget Tiki torches fending off mosquitoes in the backyard, or digging cigarette butts from between your toes as an ambulance rushes by carrying a stabbing victim off the beach in Biloxi.
But Cold Beer Conversation has numerous bright spots. The ballads “Something Going Down” and “Even When I Can’t Feel It” may be considered too sentimental for some listeners, but certainly show Strait at his best, and the Western Swing-themed “It Takes All Kinds” was a fun surprise in the center of this record. “Rock Paper Scissors” gives the album a little country rock kick without going too out-of-character for George, and by the end you feel like Cold Beer Conversation gives you its money’s worth.
There has been some talk about the use of Auto-Tune on this album, especially after the controversy surrounding Strait’s live album from his final official concert. But this critic with perked antennae that usually pick up on such things didn’t run afoul at any point of any obvious audio enhancements, though it wouldn’t be unheard of for a little tweak here or there to be performed on the vocal track.
Radio may have stopped paying attention, but the country fans that matter stopped paying attention to radio years ago. George Strait is now in the tender care of grassroots and loyal listeners who buy records in whole and don’t wait to be instructed by radio jockeys, because they know an investment in George Strait is never going to let them down.
Not a bad effort, George.
1 1/2 of 2 Guns Up (7/10)
– – – – – – – – – – – – – –