04 October 2015
"Cold Beer Conversation" - George Strait
Cold Beer Conversation
Produced by Chuck Ainlay and George Strait
Album Release: 29 September 2015 (iTunes and Walmart CD)
My enthusiasm for music has been tumultuous over the last ten years or so, partly because my feelings about things have evolved so artists and songs that I once enjoyed have stopped speaking to me while I've found new voices to appreciate. Throughout it all, though, a handful of artists have remained entrenched and George Strait is among them. I checked online not a week before Cold Beer Conversation dropped to see if there was any news about his next album and found nothing, but then this past Tuesday came and brought with it an email alert that there was, in fact, new Strait music to be heard!
Aside from being such a surprise, Cold Beer Conversation also caught my attention for other things. Firstly, there's the striking album art cover, unlike anything else in Strait's discography. This is actual, you know, art rather than one of the few publicity photos he reluctantly poses for every few years. Secondly, this is not being given a full wide release from the outset; the digital version is exclusive to iTunes and the physical CD to Walmart. Lastly, this is the first album in Strait's discography since the 1992 soundtrack for Pure Country not co-produced by Tony Brown. Instead, Chuck Ainlay has stepped up from engineering to work with Strait.
I'll readily admit I was apprehensive about the change, chiefly because the two albums I looked forward to most last year, Garth Brooks's comeback Man Against Machine and the live album recording from Strait's own final regular tour, The Cowboy Rides Away: Live from AT&T Stadium, were mangled by clumsy engineering. To Ainlay's credit, though, Cold Beer Conversation has a crisp, clear aesthetic that breathes comfortably. Strait's vocal range has diminished a bit over his last several albums, though it's something that isn't as apparent unless you're familiar with his older material and in any event, his skills as interpreter are second to none. He knows how to turn a phrase and find humor and poignancy alike in his easygoing manner, and thankfully the instrumentation and background vocalists complement, rather than compete with, him.
What made Cold Beer Conversation exciting to go into as a listener was also knowing that Strait's touring days are over, and with them quite likely his efforts to court mainstream radio. "What will he record now that he's making music for himself?" was what many of us wondered. The answer may just be as simple as the song "It Takes All Kinds" (written by Strait with his son Bubba Strait, Bob Regan, and Wil Nance) - a Western swing romp the likes of which used to be his stock and trade but seemed to have stopped being so overt somewhere along the way. Plain and simple, this is a fun album. I think we have to go all the way back to 2001's The Road Less Traveled to find the last time he cut an album with this kind of energy and lightheartedness.
The references to drinking that pop up on most of the songs wear thin, though at least by being titled as it is, this album lets us know before we hear a single note that we're going to encounter them. Admittedly, part of my reaction to that is that my drinking days are behind me (thanks, guts) and I've spent time in the company of people who have addiction issues, but also I think a lot of mainstream country listeners have endured such a glut of songs about getting party-drunk that it's not even entertaining anymore. It just feels played out as subject material, though at least these are songs about casual drinking rather than celebrating a frat lifestyle.
My only genuine sore spot is "Cheaper Than a Shrink" (Bill Anderson, Buddy Cannon, and Jamey Johnson), a tune about how getting drunk is cheaper than - and maybe even more effective than - therapy. It's dismissive of not just psychotherapy, but by implication, those who turn to it for help with their mental health issues - and for those with addiction issues, its ignorance is even more insensitive. Even this, though, I'll concede is a fun sounding song. I think if it had been presented more seriously, perhaps in droning melancholy, I'd be outright angry over it but as it is, it's easy enough for me to shrug it off as misguided.
Overall, though, Cold Beer Conversation turned out to be enjoyable. I don't know that it would be my album of choice to introduce someone to Strait (Ocean Front Property and Carrying Your Love with Me are still my go-to's), but for someone who was already a listener, I'd certainly encourage them to splurge. It's a nice little pick-me-up, and a welcome addition to my library.