*** GEORGE STRAIT "Chill of an Early Fall" MCA

George's formula is pretty strait-forward by now: a coupla please-don't-leave-me ballads, a coupla I-blew-it-by-lettin'-you-go confessionals, a tip of the Stetson to his Texas homeland, a bouncy swing tune and maybe a country classic or two. The recipe's outcome varies only with the quality of the ingredients. Whether he spent more time rummaging through the demo tapes this time around or whether he just likes what he found better, Strait has turned in his liveliest album in years.

Ironically, some of the high spots at first sound a lot like the whippersnappers who've snatched away the limelight that once shone so brightly on this long, tall Texan. "You Know Me Better Than That" is a charming, if slightly puzzling, cross between Garth Brooks' "Friends in Low Places" (lyrically) and Randy Travis' "Forever and Ever, Amen" (musically).

Strait succeeds with most of the material not via any vocal tours de force, but simply by stepping back and underplaying the lyrics, just the right touch for the generally lightweight material. He even gets convincingly bluesy on a credible remake of Hank Williams' "Lovesick Blues" and the old saw "Milk Cow Blues," even if he still ain't Elvis--or Bob Wills.

Albums are rated on a scale of one star (poor) to five (a classic).

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