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Perhaps it’s unwise to dump on veteran country crooner George Strait for being so goddamn consistent. But I’ve grown weary, album after album, of praising the neotraditionalist’s clever phrasing, smooth production skills, and dead-on song selection—and bemoaning the absence of that extra belt of 80-proof inspiration. Just once I’d like to see the handsome Texan and his Ace in the Hole Band take some offbeat chances and completely shit the bed—and I’m a fan, fer chrissakes. Always Never the Same, Strait’s 24th effort with label MCA, is—yawn—good but not great: the regular 10 sturdy tracks of uptempo country swing, midtempo bittersweet shuffle, and suicide-slow Western lament. Album opener and first single “Meanwhile” is a deserved hit, with Strait simultaneously half-waltzing alongside Paul Franklin’s dewy steel guitar and striving for bare-bone heartache during the gorgeous chorus. He never again reaches those lofty heights; instead, Strait hits cruise control early and, with a few notable exceptions, stays on the safest path: “One of You” is a charming two-stepper co-penned by the always reliable (and refreshingly playful) Jim Lauderdale, while “That’s the Truth” finds Strait finally reaching for some high-lonesome vocals in lieu of tugging down the brim of his Stetson and—as he does on most of Always Never the Same—simply riding on.—Sean Daly