Sunday, April 24, 2011

Uprooted Album Revue 4/24/2011

 The Uprooted Album Revue highlights new releases, reissues, and my own latest discoveries.

Steve Earle
I'll Never Get Out Of This World Alive
(New West, 4/26)

It's no secret to my friends and readers that, as someone who considers himself a big Steve Earle fan, I just haven't been able to get all that into his own penned material since Transcendental Blues. Although I personally agree with most of Mr. Earle's political leanings, and admire Mr. Earle's willingness to follow his own path, I just found that the Jerusalem, The Revolution Starts Now, and Washington Square Serenade, despite Grammy and award nods, just didn't hold the lasting power of any of his masterworks that I would often reach for: Copperhead Road, Train A Comin', I Feel Alright, El Corozon, or Transcendental Blues.  

Townes, the tribute album to Townes Van Zandt, signaled a welcome shift back towards his biggest strengths, and the news that Mr. Earle was making a new record with T Bone Burnett was something I could not resist getting excited about (especially after I saw him play a stellar solo acoustic set opening for Levon Helm last fall- which you can read about here).

I'll Never Get Out Of This World Alive does not disappoint. Mr. Earle thankfully leaves the drum machines and overtly-heavy political agendas that may isolate or turn off fans at home for this one. The new album presents a gifted and exceptional songwriter offering a new record that is simply filled with well-written and lyrically memorable songs that are crafted with textured arrangements that span country, blues, and rock.

As in his best work, I'll Never Get Out Of This World Alive finds Mr. Earle weaving descriptive and universally-relatable tales about the common folk in us all: who we are, the places we live (physically and mentally), and the loves we all cherish as well as struggle to endure. Earle's lasting narratives, paired here with a rich range of instrumentation, allows the album to flow. Throughout, the set sounds organic, traditional, and intuitively reassuring. The tunes work together to build a collection that certainly adds a refreshing chapter to the artist's canon.

In addition to being a well written batch of songs, the album just sounds great. The variety of instrumentation here is awesome- and something to be listened to through earphones at least once. The layers of guitars, mandolins, bass, pounding drums, harmonicas, percussion, strings, and horns, all sound great. It is also clear that Mr. Earle was deliberate with each of his vocal performances, and it makes the record a multi-facted collection that keeps moving throughout.

The songwriter stretches his vocal styles to masterfully fit each tune. He nestles deep into the slabs of dense full-band arrangements ("Waitin On The Sky", "Little Emperor", "Meet Me In The Alleyway") , rises just above the sparse accompaniment on his laments and ballads ("Every Part of Me", "Lonely Are The Free", "I Am A Wanderer", "This City"), and sounds relaxed over the steady numbers that coast by ("The Gulf of Mexico", "Molly O", "Heaven or Hell").

I'll Never Get Out Of This World Alive is an excellent record for longtime Steve Earle fans to pick up, as well as for newcomers to dig into. For me personally, it's the record I've been waiting for him to make, and I am psyched to catch him when he rolls into town with the Dukes. 

Emmylou Harris
Hard Bargain
(Nonesuch, 4/26)

Emmylou Harris has taken a declarative step forward with her 21st album, Hard Bargain. Rather than offer up a collection largely of tunes to re-inerpret, as she has masterfully done in the past, Ms. Harris has taken this opportunity to write the majority of these songs herself. The new album finds the singer and songwriter admirably reaching within and stretching out on this effort with an impressive body of work that can stand proudly among her other albums of covers, as well as those fairly recent ones that are built largely upon her own writing, like Red Dirt Girl and Stumble Into Grace.

Known for her distinctively moving and beautiful voice, Ms. Harris delivers the powerful vocal performance that fans will expect her to deliver, but on top of that, she also brings a moving and evocative set of her own material to the table. "The Road" opens the set with an electric guitar bounce, but quickly subsides to reveal more of a drum-driven groove. The tune looks to the past as the singer reflects on her memories of Gram Parsons. The tune recalls a lifelong journey for the artist, as well as providing inspiration for the listener to do some examination of his/ or her own history and relationships.

From there, Emmylou guides us through an album that seamlessly crosses over and blends the musical genres of country, folk, rock, and Americana, while also spanning a wide range of lyrical subject matter. Two songs on Hard Bargain are covers, including the cover track which was written by Ron Sexsmith, but the rest are all Emmylou.

She reminisces on old acquaintances such as Parsons and Kate McGarrigle (mother to Martha and Rufus Wainright), tells a story of Emmett Till, examines New Orleans, and even looks to a dog pound as a muse. I know it may sound a little all over the place on paper, but with her uplifting and soaring vocals, together with arrangements that compliment and enhance her performance throughout, Ms. Harris shines as a legendary singer and storyteller. As an artist who follows her inspiration wherever it may lead her, whether it's re-interpreting or composing her own works, Ms. Harris brings it all to us on Hard Bargain, and with impressions that dig deeper with each listen.

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