July 21, 2003 12:00 PM

George Strait (MCA Nashville)

Critic’s Choice

George Strait has always seemed a bit above the fray, like the cowboy who walks into a tough saloon and orders a sarsaparilla. But at long last he gets down and sawdusty on this ingratiatingly rowdy album, his 31st. Strait will never outscruff that other George, Jones, but this disc’s playful romp “Honk If You Honky Tonk” should have people beeping all over Nashville. Meanwhile, “I Found Jesus on the Jailhouse Floor” may be history’s first honky-tonk spiritual: It’s like a straight whiskey with holy water back. Not that Strait has forgotten how to be smooth and romantic, as “As Far as It Goes” and “Desperately” attest. As usual, Strait and his longtime coproducer Tony Brown surround the singer with terrific musicians. They, along with an astute selection of material, make Honkytonkville a most enjoyable place to visit.

BOTTOM LINE: Great Strait

Hotel Paper
Michelle Branch (Maverick)

On “Are You Happy Now?”—the rock-charged single that leads off Branch’s second CD—the 20-year-old singer clearly wants you to know that she is not the same sweet girl who whimsically sang “Everywhere” on her hit debut, 2001’s The Spirit Room. Doing her best Alanis Morissette imitation, Branch rails at an ex, “I know it’s just no use/ When all your lies become your truths.” Even so, Hotel Paper is hardly Branch’s Jagged Little Pill. Mostly she still sounds like a junior Sheryl Crow. Which isn’t such a bad thing for most of this pop disc, including when Crow joins Branch on the country-flavored duet “Love Me Like That.”

BOTTOM LINE: A three-star Hotel

Paper Monsters
Dave Gahan (Reprise)

Dave Gahan has been the voice of Depeche Mode since 1980, but he leaves the songwriting to bandmate Martin Gore. Taking creative control on his solo debut, Gahan cowrote all 10 tunes and proves to have learned a few things from Gore. “I Need You,” one of this disc’s highlights, is a sinister synth-pop track, complete with foreboding lyrics (“You’ll always need me much more than I need you”), that is straight from the Depeche mode. Gahan, not straying too far from his group’s signature sound, keeps things both familiar and fresh. There is an almost gothic, chamber-style beauty to ballads like “Stay,” but the touching lyrics inspired by Gahan’s 3-year-old daughter Stella Rose, as well as his aching baritone, reflect a man who has moved well beyond Black Celebration. And while Gahan’s music also evokes other ’80s alternative heroes like U2, the Cure and Morrissey at times, it would fit right in alongside Coldplay.

BOTTOM LINE: Just can’t get enough

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