Strait and Narrow : Check List **** Great Balls of Fire *** Good Vibrations ** Maybe Baby * Running on Empty

**GEORGE STRAIT "If You Ain't Lovin', You Ain't Livin' ." MCA. When this buttoned-down, neat-as-pin hunk from Texas hit the scene a few years back, who'd a thunk we'd ever come across another singer as adorably laid-back and Strait-laced? But, to paraphrase the old song, along came Travis. The gulf between country's two young leading men becomes more dramatic with Strait's latest album, which further illuminates Randy Travis' apparent stranglehold on the best country songs available these days.

The title cut here, written by Tommy Collins, aims for a sort of Hank Williams-like innocence ("If you ain't gettin' no huggin'/No kissin' or a-muggin' ") but merely plays out as cutesy. Aaron Baker's "Baby Blue" is the kind of soggy ballad you'd expect in a "Barry Manilow Goes to Nashville" TV special. Most of the rest are just as forgettable.

The overriding problem is that the more George tries to play it Strait, the more he loses his grip, because as a vocal stylist he can't touch such masters as Jones and Haggard or, for that matter, even Travis.

But when he's doing light 'n' sprightly Bob Wills-inspired swing in the vein of his 1983 hit "Right or Wrong," Strait at least manages to bolster the trivial lyrics of L. David Lewis' "Let's Get Down to It" with vibrant instrumental backing. On an album that has only 30 minutes of music, that adds up to a serious energy shortage.

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