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Reviews: Steve Earle: Guitar Town

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Review by J-man January 28, 2003 (2 of 2 found this review helpful)
Performance:   Sonics:
Call it "twang rock," but don't call it "country and western." Put on your toe-tappin' shoes, grab something pretty and warm, and crank it up, up and away: Steve Earle has brought his guitar to town.

Texan, music renegade, and all-around badass, Steve Earle originally recorded this album in the mid-1980s. It includes 10 original compositions (by Earle alone or with collaborators), and the bonus track, "State Trouper" (a Bruce Springsteen composition). The only bad news about this SACD (and it's only minor bad news) concerns the disc's provenance: the original recording was digital -- not analog. This disc lacks the warmth in vocals and acoustic instruments that, for my money, helps to lend the strong sense of naturalness (the magical sensation that the performer is in my listening room) exhibited by the best SACDs. Otherwise, the disc sounds quite good: crisp, clean, detailed, and smooooth; compared with the original CD tracks, it's a sonic revelation. Of course, it wouldn't be a proper review without some of the technical mumbo-jumbo, so I'll offer this side-note on transients. When I first played this SACD, the up-tempo nature of the music drew me under its spell. It did this to such a degree that I kept increasing the volume until 2 sliding glass doors in my listening room began to flex inward and outward. Concerned that the doors just might shatter, I went over to open them, and -- for the first time -- actually spied transients floating just outside the windows. I am not sure whether it was the music or an opportune, unusually-warm January day that turned them out, but it appeared that they were bathing in a fountain just across the way (good news considering their usual odor).

Enough of the technicalities. What about the music??? For those not familiar with Steve Earle, he wasn't doing country, when country was cool (in the late 1980s and early 1990s). At least, he wasn't during purely country music. Like so many of the original voices in the southern, southwestern, and western US, he blends music genres. In this case, he combines a rock sensibility and beat, with instruments traditionally used in country and western music (like a pedal steel guitar). Moreover, his lyrics aren't the trite, glib observations so often found in pop-rock; they speak to the trials and tribulations of life, much like the best examples of country and western and folk music. When Earle sings the lyrics of "My Old Friend the Blues":

Just when every ray of hope was gone
I should have known that you would come along
I can't believe I ever doubted you
My old friend the blues...

Lovers leave and friends will let you down
But you're the only sure thing that I've found
No matter what I do I'll never lose
My old friend the blues

you are left to think about the three failed marriages he had already experienced, and to wince at the foreshadowing of his dalliances with smack and crack that ultimately led to prison time. Only 2 of the songs on this disc should be considered strong, traditional country fare, "Hillbilly Highway" and "Think It Over." The rest are slow-tempo everyman ballads and foot-stomping, foundation-rattling, neighbors-gonna-be-callin'-the-law celebrations of the common man's life, in all its joy and misery. The title track speaks to Earle's struggle to find success; "Goodbye's All We Got Left" is an ode to love gone bad; "Little Rock-n-Roller" is a lamentation on absentee parenthood (and so on). Yeah, the songs on this disc have pretty catchy beats, but provide an emotional connection as well. What more can you ask for from popular music? I highly recommend this disc, of course.

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