George Strait COLD BEER CONVERSATION

George Strait — the old-school, traditional, consistent, semi-retired Country Music Hall of Fame member — might be the last person anyone would expect to join the trend-conscious movement of stars dropping a completed album with no advanced notice.

The surprises don’t end there. “Cold Beer Conversation” finds the Texas legend working with a new producer for the first time in 25 years. Chuck Ainlay has engineered Strait’s albums for decades, but this time he sits in the producer’s chair. That said, “Cold Beer Conversation” is vintage Strait. He has such a strong vocal presence that even when he takes a left turn, as he often does, it still sounds like him.

Ainlay occasional gets too heavy-handed, tough. For example, the rowdy, drunken choir of voices on the chorus “Goin’ Goin’ Gone” is a Nashville cliche that clutters up an otherwise good song.

But the highlights prove that Strait remains at the top of his game: From the casual way he captures a meaningful talk between buddies on the title cut to the melodic intimacy of “Let It Go” to the jaunty swing of “It Takes All Kinds,” the album adds another gem to one of country music’s deepest, most entertaining catalogs.

Michael McCall

The Associated Press

Don Henley CASS COUNTY

On his first solo album in 15 years, Don Henley extends the polished, soulful take on country music initially heard on the Eagles hits “Best of My Love” and “Wasted Time.” To his credit, he doesn’t attempt to out-posture, or out-rock, contemporary country artists such as Jason Aldean and Luke Bryan. Instead, he creates the kind of country music that fans of the Eagles, and of traditional country music, can embrace.

Steel guitar rates as the album’s most prominent instrument. Fiddles and mandolins surface nearly as frequently. The old-school instruments fit Henley’s songs: Stripped to an elegant simplicity, the arrangements match Henley’s attitude, which wavers between wistful and hopeful, fighting off a jaded view on such stone-country tunes as “The Cost of Living,” a duet with Merle Haggard.

Henley invites plenty of guests to “Cass Country”: Mick Jagger and Miranda Lambert take verses on the old-fashioned original “Bramble Rose”; Martina McBride proves to be a passionate duet partner on “That Old Flame”; and Dolly Parton harmonizes with heart-tugging emotion on the Louvin Brothers’ “When I Stop Dreaming.”

Generous at 16 tracks, and consistent in how he connects his world-weary originals with well-chosen covers, Henley proves that this longtime rock star — originally from small-town Texas — can go home again.

M.M.

The Associated Press

Kurt Vile B’LIEVE I’M GOIN DOWN

Singer-songwriter Kurt Vile is a slacker, stoner and a son of a gun. On his new album, “B’lieve I’m Goin Down,” Vile presents another document of the modern man — the guy who tries to be cool but couldn’t care less. And like most good songwriters today, he’s constantly aware of this conflicted personality.

Vile’s new album isn’t a huge leap forward nor a huge left turn. He is still rooted in acoustic arpeggios and hushed, barely trying vocal lines. However, his new album does have a strange confidence and humor that puts it right up there with some of the better releases of the year.

Lead-off track “Pretty Pimpin” captures the cyclical nature of self-loathing and self-confidence. “Lost My Head There” sounds like a great, long-lost Damon Albarn (Blur, Gorillaz) b-side. Both songs have a warm, welcoming honesty, but also introduce you to Vile’s annoying penchant for shoving too many words in each stanza.

Often times, Vile reaches, trying too hard to be Mr. Cool. “That’s Life, tho (almost hate to say)” and “All in a Daze Work” feature rote observations about “chillaxing.” You start looking at the speaker as if to say, “We get it man, you smoke weed.”

But, this is how Vile has always been — a prolific wiseguy with a ratio of 5:1 good to atrocious lines. He’s the type of guy who will admit he doesn’t have it all figured out, then slyly ask, “Then again, who does?” That point is one he continues to make well.

Matthew Sigur