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Posted at 11:07 AM ET, 09/06/2011

Quick spins: George Strait, Asa, St. Vincent

George Strait

“Here For a Good Time”

Country’s best-known new traditionalist, Hall of Famer George Strait, has survived Garth Brooks, Taylor Swift and countless other genre scourges, adapting his sound only enough to survive. On his almost thoroughly excellent new disc (his 39th, all told), “Here for a Good Time,” he sticks to a familiar formula of sad songs and honky-tonk rave-ups, pathos and grit.

“Here for a Good Time” is populated by gentle, loping mid-tempo country songs that spotlight Strait’s boundless gift for sounding wistful and grave, contemplative and wry. He always sounds a little disappointed, as if he knows that you, the listener, could have done better if only you, the listener, had tried a little harder. It’s an approach codified on the ballad “Three Nails and a Cross,” partly about a frightened pregnant teen who finds religion: “She turns and sees that Bible laying by her bed / And she crumbles to her knees as she bows her head,” Strait sings, in a tone that suggests it’s about time.

Strait isn’t afraid to wring every last ounce of drama out of songs like the great road warrior ballad “A Showman’s Life,” which features nicely understated backing vocals by Faith Hill, or “Drinkin’ Man,” a dark, empathetic look at a lifelong alcoholic. He wraps things up with “I’ll Always Remember You,” an ode to Strait’s career and fans that ends with a spoken-word thank-you to the folks. It’s dated beyond words, something you might find on one of those Conway Twitty albums advertised on late-night TV in 1972. In anyone else’s hands it would have been hopelessly drippy; in Strait’s, it’s old school.

— Allison Stewart

Recommended Tracks: “I’ll Always Remember You,” “A Showman’s Life”

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Asa

“Beautiful Imperfection”

Released in the United Kingdom last April, this Paris-born Nigerian soul singer’s new album is, true to its title, a thing of beauty — a socially conscious, rhythmically sophisticated record inspired by, but not overly indebted to, torchbearers such as Bob Marley, Fela Kuti and Lauryn Hill.

“Be My Man,” the first single from “Beautiful Imperfection,” is buoyed by a tricked-up neo-Motown arrangement akin to those heard on recent recordings by Lily Allen and Amy Winehouse. “Why Can’t We” is impelled by a hiccuping ska backbeat, but “Broda Ole,” one of three songs sung in Yoruba, is even catchier, thanks to its galloping rhythms and unstoppable chorus. Here again, Lily Allen — or Diana Ross, for that matter — would be proud, or at least induced to smile.

Other tracks, such as the reggae-inflected “Maybe,” find Asa in a more searching — and global — frame of mind. “There never used to be / This much attention to security / Until the terror and catastrophe,” she sings, her languid alto and the loping rhythms that bear it along belying the anxiety conveyed in her lyrics. Elsewhere, over an ominous chorus of horns and a nagging snare drum, she laments, “I feel like we’re not angry enough / That while we wait, time’s ticking away.”Ironically enough, Asa (pronounced “Asha”) records for a label called Naive. And yet as evidenced by zingers such as “Why is it so much religions yet there’s so little love?,” there’s nothing in the least bit puerile about this young woman or her irrepressible, humanity-minded pop.

— Bill Friskics-Warren

Recommended Tracks: “Why Can’t We,” “Maybe,” “Broda Ole”

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St. Vincent

“Strange Mercy”

Annie Clark is perfect. This is both infatuating and infuriating. On “Strange Mercy,” her third album as St. Vincent, she is still very comfortably more of the former. But the gap is starting to shrink.

After two albums of immaculate chamber-pop, the 28-year-old’s “Strange Mercy” offers more of the same, except this time even more lush and squeaky clean. It begins with a song whose title sounds like a French New Wave film (“Chloe in the Afternoon”), segues into the breezy disco gallop of “Cruel” and follows with “Cheerleader,” in which she alluringly whispers, “I’ve had good times / With some bad guys / I’ve told whole lies / With a half smile.” It’s all completely irresistible up until the point you want to smash it into a thousand pieces. But even then, it would surely congeal into the most beautiful mosaic ever.

Clark’s songs are deliberate and considered, notable both for the variety of sounds she employs — sudden strings, soft synths, all manner of electric guitar — and the structures she stuffs them into. Each is a mini-symphony that deftly balances the delicate with the rough. Her guitar playing is clinical, delivered with militaristic precision. Even when things get messy, it’s hard not to feel as though everything is exactly in its right place — the frenzied solo on “Northern Lights” sounds like a pixelated video game creation.

Closing track “Year of the Tiger” has the album’s loveliest vocal melody in the chorus, but it’s the way Clark seductively inhales between lines that’s just as memorable. There’s a fuzzy, guitar-driven surge and then a stately comedown. It’s another example of Clark elegantly tiptoeing her way through a perfectly adorned environment and wondering how awesome it might sound if she recklessly stomped around.

— David Malitz

Recommended Tracks: “Cruel,” “Northern Lights,” “Year of the Tiger”

By Allison Stewart, Bill Friskics-Warren and  |  11:07 AM ET, 09/06/2011

Categories:  Quick spins | Tags:  George Strait, Asa, St. Vincent

 
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