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* = Poor** = fair*** = good****...

THE BALTIMORE SUN

* = Poor

** = fair

*** = good

**** = excellent

George Strait

One Step at a Time (MCA 70020)

It would be hard to imagine the country community ever producing the likes of a David Bowie. It's not that there's no room for Bowie-style outrageousness in the music; country fans just wouldn't stand for a star who reinvented himself every time out.

No, they'd rather stand by a man like George Strait. Over the last 18 years, Strait has released some 22 titles. Yet even though there has been remarkably little variation from album to album, Strait's stock has soared with each passing year. In fact, he has become one of the biggest names in Nashville -- despite not having the cross-over appeal of a Garth Brooks or LeAnn Rimes.

"One Step at a Time" isn't likely to change Strait's standing outside the country community; it's too down-home and unassuming to wow the raised-on-rock listeners who have swung over to Brooks. Country fans, on the other hand, can expect to be smitten, for on this album, Strait does everything he usually does, only better.

Start with the love songs. Where other men in country come across either as ardent suitors or beautiful losers, Strait is a classic quiet man, tempering his determination and devotion with manners and respect. It's a trait that sometimes leaves him seeming old-fashioned, but there's never any sense of stodginess in his singing, as there's always an undercurrent of manly vitality to his mellifluous baritone.

So when he leans into the lilting refrain of "I Just Want To Dance With You," what comes through is the heartfelt ardor of a man who not only loves dancing and courting in equal measure, but has no problem saying so. Even better, his enthusiasm is so plainly audible in his singing that Strait can easily bypass the sort of touchy-feely blather that leaves rock singer/songwriters seeming so ineffectual.

Likewise, "Maria" finds him investing such tenderness in his quietly crooned portrayal of a man who fell in love unexpectedly that the protagonist's intentions are clear long before the lyrics spell them out. Even "You Haven't Left Me Yet," the album's requisite heartbreak ballad, manages to make Strait seem more admirable than pitiable, insisting that "I'm done with fallin' apart" while admitting he still can't get her out of his heart. Even when abandoned, Strait remains steadfast and true.

Although his combination of courage and decency can be found elsewhere in the world, Strait has always made those seem like specifically Texan virtues. Sometimes he spells it out in the lyrics, as he does on this album with the witty "Remember the Alamo," but more often than not, he and his band will drive the point home through a flair for Western swing and old-style honky tonk.

With "One Step at a Time," however, Strait and company move in a different direction, drawing from the Tex-Mex norteno tradition. Granted, Strait's approach is closer to the sound of Marty Robbins' "El Paso" than to the traditional balladry offered by Los Lobos or Flaco Jimenez, but it nonetheless adds warmth to the likes of "I Just Want To Dance with You" and "Maria."

Still, the album's most pleasant surprise is Jim Lauderdale's "We Really Shouldn't Be Doing This," a witty bad-boy song that finds the usually straight-laced Strait protesting quite mildly about having been led into temptation. Not only is the tune's lightly rocking arrangement a pleasant change of pace within the album, but the good-hearted naughtiness Strait packs into his performance reminds us that even straight-arrow Texans occasionally bend.

*** Randy Travis

You and You Alone (Dreamworks 50034)

There's enough grit and twang in Randy Travis' gravelly baritone to ensure that he'll sound down-home no matter what -- and that's a good thing, considering how slick and calculating "You and You Alone" often seems. Sounding more like a marketing effort than a collection of songs, it tries to touch on every craze in contemporary country, from Eagles-style rock ("The Hole") to boot-scoot boogie ("I'm Still Here, You're Still Gone") to singer/songwriter sensitivity ("Horse Called Music"). Fortunately, that throw-it-against-the-wall approach does allow room for a few heartfelt tunes, meaning that "Stranger In My Mirror" and "Only Worse" end up sounding like the Travis of old. But on the whole, the album is slick and unconvincing.

* 1/2

J.D. Considine

JAZZ

Bill Laswell

Panthalassa: The Music of Miles Davis, 1969-1974 (Columbia 67909)

Who would have imagined that, almost 30 years after Miles Davis outraged jazz purists with his excursions into jazz/rock, they'd have the chance to be outraged again? However, in the case of "Panthalassa: The Music of Miles Davis, 1969-1974," it's not Davis who will draw the ire of traditionalists, but producer Bill Laswell, who has "reconstructed" and remixed nine Davis performances. Considering that Davis' own producer, Teo Macero, concocted albums by splicing together snippets of studio improvisation, Laswell's approach is hardly unprecedented. But as much as he illuminates in "Black Satin/What If/Agharta Prelude Dub," it's hard to see what is gained by condensing the "In A Silent Way" album to a 15-minute megamix.

**1/2

@

J.D. Considine Because of You (Sony Classical SK 60327)

Predictability has its pleasures, and the Preservation Hall Jazz Band is proof. On "Because of You," the venerable New Orleans septet tends the flame of Dixieland with style, dignity and impeccable musicianship. The 11-piece set includes good-natured romps ("Mama Don't Allow It") dance-hall standards ("You Can Depend on Me") and a handful of instrumentals, including the Sidney Bechet composition "Petite Fleur," highlighted by David Grillier's molasses-smooth clarinet. Things hit a peak on "Muskrat Ramble," the Kid Ory classic whose ragtime architecture gives the combo plenty of room to show off its nimble group improvisation. At times, these careful readings seem a bit too preserved, lacking the rough-and-tumble flair of the music's originators. Still, there's plenty of New Orleans spice here to enjoy.

***

Mark Bomster

POP/ROCK

Jimmy Page/Robert Plant

Walking Into Clarksdale (Atlantic 83092)

Though anything Jimmy Page and Robert Plant do will be compared with Led Zeppelin, it's worth noting that "Walking Into Clarksdale" stands quite comfortably on its own. Although some songs are clearly Zeppelinesque in their sound and fury -- "Upon a Golden Horse" and the bluesy title tune come to mind -- other tracks find the duo clearing new ground. Part of that no doubt has to do with the insight and finesse of bassist Charlie Jones and Michael Lee (check out the slow, sensuous throb in "Heart In Your Hand"). But the bulk of the credit belongs with the writing, for from the mighty arabesques of "Most High" to the dramatic sweep of "When I Was a Child," these stand as some of Page and Plant's best songs.

*** 1/2

J.D. Considine

2 Skinnee J's

Supermercado (Capricorn 314 536 892)

The packaging is at least half the fun of "Supermercado," the new release from New York hip-hopsters 2 Skinnee J's. Each of the group's six members is portrayed as a goofy, vacant-faced model from a '70s clothing catalog. The kitsch is so thorough and aggressive that it almost comes full circle back to unintentional irony. The raps themselves are heavy with references to disco-era pop culture: Bruce Jenner, the movie "Carrie," Kung-fu grip, even a whole track -- "Mind-Trick" -- devoted to Star Wars. Some of the lyrics are stupidly funny -- at one point rhyming meticulous, ridiculous and "Moby Dickulous" -- while funky and melodic tracks such as "Riot Nrrrd," "Wild Kingdom" and "The Best" stand out from others that are at least entertaining if not so inspired.

** 1/2

@

Greg Schneider

Radiohead

Airbag/How Am I Driving? (Capitol 58701)

There's no better sign that a band has moved beyond the level of cult stardom than the release of between-album EPs. Hence the new Radiohead release, "Airbag/How Am I Driving?" Doubtless intended to further the momentum generated by the band's recent tour, this seven-song collection augments "Airbag" the first track from their critically acclaimed "OK Computer" CD) with an assortment of B-sides from European singles. As such, it will likely seem a bore to casual fans, while serious collectors will already own most of its material. Still, it does have its pleasures, from the dreamy drone of "Meeting in the Aisle" to the slow-burning intensity of "Polyethylene (Parts 1&2)."

** 1/2

J.D. Considine

Roy Orbison Live at the BBC

BBC Music 8224

Upon Roy Orbison's death in 1988, fellow Wilbury traveler Bob Dylan summed up Orbison this way: "He was an opera singer." Listen to Orbison run through his repertoire on "Live at the BBC," and you know just what Dylan meant. Orbison's distinctive voice soars and dips through the 15 songs on this CD, from ballads to blues to the fluffiest of pop. In fact, if you want an example of Orbison's greatness, hear his treatment of Neil Diamond's "Sweet Caroline." Think silk purses and sow's ears or lemonade and lemons. This CD was taken from performances in 1968, 1971, 1975 and 1985, and there may be elements to quibble over, such as two versions each of "Oh Pretty Woman" and "It's Over" and the overbearing orchestra on the two 1971 tracks. But those are just quibbles, and it's a grand treat to hear Orbison in fine voice.

***

Pub Date: 5/07/98

Ray Frager

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