Yoakam may be the staunchest champion of country-music tradition who still has any impact on the charts or presence on country radio. His first album of new material in three years reinforces that position in some admirable, some frustrating ways.
His best songs look squarely at romantic failings, always the most fertile ground for good country songs. "These Arms" voices a single-minded yearning for love like vintage Buck Owens, while "The Curse" dares anyone to enjoy a happy moment in the face of the pain love can inflict. But the latter's Johnny Cash & the Tennessee Two arrangement casts a giant shadow he can't fully step out of.
That's one of several numbers in which Yoakam gets sidetracked with self-consciously retro production touches. The recurrent Owen Bradley strings, the Floyd Cramer piano in "That's Okay," the cheesy roller-rink organ in the title tune call attention to themselves more than illuminate the song.
Yoakam clearly knows these styles inside out, but it's when he drops the genre workouts that he sounds like he finally has found his way home.
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* Excerpts from these albums and other recent releases are available on The Times' World Wide Web site. Point your browser to: http://www.latimes.com/soundclips