George Strait

He doesn't have the biggest hat or the most sensitive act, but among today's younger male country singers, Strait may have the mellowest voice and the strongest knack for picking a song. This laid-far-back album includes the mournful Paul Over-street—Thorn Schuyler ballad "Trains Make Me Lonesome," which previously served S.K.O. so well, and Chips Moman and Bobby Emmons's nostalgic "So Much Like My Dad." Dogmatic feminists may prefer the self-abasing "You're Right I'm Wrong" by Marty Stuart and Wayne Perry, though Strait never sounds all that apologetic. For romantics, there's a familiar-sounding title "All of Me (Loves All of You)."

As usual, Strait sings in the most straightforward style, as befits someone who has inherited Merle Haggard's spot as Nashville's prime exponent of sheer purty singing. (MCA)

Bill Morrissey

Touted as New England's answer to the last and best of the South's white country-blues men, Hank Williams, Morrissey is more recognizably a folksinger, albeit one whose musical roots ramble down some mighty lost and lonesome roads.

With three previous albums, this 40-year-old Connecticut native now living in New Hampshire has cultivated a cult following among the literary set—writers Jay McInerney and Richard Ford and their editor, Gary Fisketjon, for instance—who praise his proudly acoustic songs for their complex narratives and savor Morrissey's quietly husky delivery.

On his new disc, Morrissey adds more top-notch material to his already impressive songbook. There is a new playfulness in some of the tracks—notably "Chameleon Blues" about a woman who changes "with every new boyfriend." Sings Morrissey: "When you dated the police chief/I know you packed a gun/ There was that scuba diver and/ You look so great in fins."

But most of the songs build brooding scenarios of love in twilight and lives on hold. One of the best is "Inside," which Morrissey performs as a duet with Suzanne Vega, about a couple living in a "furnished room" in a town where "There's no work/ Just a lot of talk." While this is a terrific batch of tunes from one of the sharpest, most introspective songwriters in the business, credit also must go to the exceptional backup musicians and vocalists. Foremost is violinist Johnny Cunningham of the Raindogs, whose lively Celtic licks grace a number of tunes. Pianist Tom McClung, organist Ron Levy and drummer Doug Plavin also contribute substantially to the album's moody energy. Morrissey is a unique talent. The truths he unearths aren't often pretty, but the way he tells them can take your breath away. (Philo/Rounder)

Rosie Flores

It's funny that Flores should be considered L.A.'s queen of western beat—a gentle blend of rockabilly, country and blues—because she's hardly slaved still long enough to let any crown be set on her head. In the late '70s, she led Rosie and the Screamers, then went solo and acoustic, opening for such worthies as Bo Diddley and the Blasters. In the mid-'80s, Flores fronted the Screaming Sirens, an all-female cowpunk-and-surf-music band with whom she cut her first solo album.

While Flores has a somewhat reedy voice, she makes the most of it on After the Farm, particularly on plaintive ballads like her own "This Loneliness" and ""West Texas Plains," co-written with Leroy Preston. "Dent in My Heart," a writing collaboration with Jimmie Dale Gilmore, is a country weeper enlivened by a gentle swing beat, while "Dream, Dream, Blue," cowritten with her brother, Roger, retains some of Flores's earlier girl-group spunk. Two other tunes that capture Flores's vocal style—which can sound both youthfully cute and dangerously grown-up, depending on the song—are "More to Offer," which Flores wrote with Guy Clark, and "Sold on You," composed with guitarist Duane Jarvis.

After the Farm is urban cowgirl music. Not quite hot enough to hoof to, it can still keep your toe tapping at a bar stool. (High Tone)

Artie Shaw

Roberto Duran's "no mas," made sense—Sugar Ray Leonard was peppering him. Artie Shaw's no mas has mystified music lovers since 1954, when the famed bandleader and virtuoso suddenly mothballed his clarinet at the peak of his wealth and fame, saying success had handcuffed his creativity. "I never played again, and I've never regretted it," the 81-year-old reiterates in a liner-note interview here. "All the public wanted was 'Beguine' and 'Frenesi.' "

What might have been we'll never know. What was is something to behold. These 20 tracks on two CDs—quintets and sextets recorded a few months before Shaw's exit and for the most part unavailable until now—bewitch with Shaw's long, supple lines, darting invention and tonal beauty. With pianist Hank Jones, vibraphonist Joe Roland, guitarist Tal Farlow and others offering effervescent support, the sessions also bewilder—how could anyone walk away from the incomparable pleasure of making music as enchanting as this? Shaw has always said he wanted to go out at the top. With these recordings, he did. (MusicMasters)

Peter Case

Volume is a beautiful thing. OK, maybe not if you're a librarian, but rocker Case is not pushing the Dewey decimal system.

The former leader of the defunct pop group the Plimsouls went solo in 1986 with a solid acoustic disc that showcased his folk roots. His 1989 follow-up got a little electric and was equally pleasant. With Six Pack of Love, though, Case plugs in and cranks up to create a beauty of a basic rock record. Most of the songs are burners that would fit a party you hope will go all night. There are a couple of slow, melancholy love tunes, "Beyond the Blues" and "Last Time I Looked," but even they have an amiable sense of fun. Case's witty wordplay keeps things loose. Familiar topics get new twists. Consider the jilted lover in "Never Co-min' Home" who moans, "When people ask me why I have to roam/I'll say that 90 percent of all accidents occur in the home."

Six Pack of Love is nothing fancy, just good, jangly guitar rock that keeps the spirit of Buddy Holly alive and will never get you an overdue notice, though maybe a shhh! from the stacks. (Geffen)

  • Contributors:
  • Ralph Novak,
  • Lisa Shea,
  • Eric Levin,
  • Craig Tomashoff.