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The Tao of Steve
Steve Earle: Guitar Town
Steve Earle: Sidetracks
E-Squared/Warner Brothers, 2002
Posted: April 14,
In the mid 1990s, when Steve Earle staged a comeback from the spiraling
depths of drug abuse and recklessness that had eventually landed him in
prison, he began producing a body of work whose maturity and impact were a
giant leap forward from the promise of his country-rock beginnings. But
given the pair of albums he's released in the first few months of 2002,
it's apparent that Earle has been spending some time looking backward.
Earlier this year, Earle re-released
Guitar Town, the 1986 album that put him on the maverick map he'd
later flesh out with destinations like Copperhead Road and Exit
0. Given its importance to his career (the record got him noticed by
an odd assortment of allies -- the rock critic establishment -- and laid the
foundation for his individualist, left-of-the-mainstream reputation),
Guitar Town at this point in his career makes a certain amount of
But now comes Sidetracks, a collection of odds and ends cobbled
together from movie soundtracks, one-off collaborations, what-the-hell
experiments and unreleased leftovers. Coupled with the
Guitar Town re-release, Sidetracks begs a number of questions
about Earle's current state of mind. After all, Earle's last studio album,
Transcendental Blues, was a spotty, sprawling affair lacking a
cohesive sound (at least to this critic's ears). And rarities collections
like Sidetracks are often desperate, contract-fulfillment attempts
to stall for time while the artist in question struggles with new
material. So is this one-two punch a sign that Earle's entering a wistful,
nostalgic period, afraid his best work lies behind him? Or is he just
clearing the decks, doing a little Spring cleaning before tackling the
next phase of his career?
A listen to both efforts proves informative and assuages any lingering
doubts about Earle's worth.
Guitar Town, for one, sounds just as fresh and encouraging now as it
did upon its release. The title opener, a cocky statement of purpose, sets
the tone for everything to come after, with Earle the traveling rogue
looking to seduce the listener -- a groupie, an audience, the record-buying
public -- with the Southern-bred charm of a small-town hustler. Songs like
"Hillbilly Highway," "Good Ol' Boy (Gettin' Tough)" and the superlative
"Someday" reveal a Springsteen-esque talent for heartland character
sketches drenched in the romanticism and dwindling prospects of rural
landscapes (a point driven home by the re-release's extra track, an '86
live cover of the Boss's "State Trooper"). And plaintive, plainspoken
numbers like "My Old Friend the Blues," "Fearless Heart" and "Goodbye's
All We've Got Left" follow in country's great tradition of broken-hearted
scrappers who dust themselves off after each heartache and hop back on the
horse. Earle's early and intuitive transitions between these worlds is
still impressive some 16 years after the fact, underlining his hard-won
place in a lineage of rebels from Johnny Cash and Hank Williams to Gram
Parsons, Townes Van Zandt and, heck, maybe even Axl Rose.
Sidetracks, by its very nature, can't hope to compete with that
kind of self-assured aura. But it certainly answers the nagging questions
posed above. Although it's a jerky affair without a real center,
Sidetracks is a collection of (mostly) worthy songs whose occasional
bursts of oddness only reinforce Earle's willingness to risk failure in
the pursuit of glory. For every decent-or-better, textbook-Earle track
("Some Dreams," "Ellis Unit One") there's a mixed-result oddity like
"Creepy Jackalope Eye" (recorded with Seattle's hard-and-fast Supersuckers,
who also lent muscle to "NYC" from El Corazon) or "Johnny Too Bad"
(with Earle and the V-Roys getting an assist in the form of -- believe it or
not -- dancehall "toasting"). There are also a couple of Irish tunes
(including the instrumental "Dominick St.") reflecting Earle's love of the
Emerald Isle (as witnessed on Transcendental Blues).
Where Sidetracks' wobbly nature gets the better of it, though,
is with a trio of cover-tune misfires, laudable attempts at homage and
rebellious dismissal of genre boundaries than nonetheless fall flat.
Earle's take on Nirvana's "Breed" is a killer in concert, but the recorded
version scores points only for its shock-value novelty: Will Rigby's
drumming never even tries to attain Dave Grohl's sense of
barely-controlled frenzy, and Earle's voice just isn't cut out for the
kind of offhand snarl-slur the lyrics demand. The Chamber Brothers' "Time
Has Come Today" similarly lags, suffering from a too-faithful arrangement
sorely lacking in energy (and also from the embarrassing warble of Sheryl
Crow). And a stab at Bob Dylan's "My Back Pages" is torpedoed by Earle's
slippery vocal mimicry; his post-prison, more nasal vocal style proves a
poor fit for the song (at least for the arrangement chosen here).
Still, for all that, Sidetracks proves solidly listenable, an
interesting rummage through the castoffs of a free-spirited craftsman
still capable of surprising his audience. But while it shows that Earle's
creative juices are still flowing, it's no more than a curio.
Guitar Town, on the other hand, resonates with the promise of a strong
songwriter introducing himself to the world, and remains one of the
strongest albums in his catalog. Sidetracks is a worthwhile detour,
Guitar Town should be any newcomer's first stop.
Those taken with
Guitar Town would do well
to check out I Feel Alright and El Corazon, the twin
pinnacles of Earle's post-comeback work. Those looking for a sampler
platter should get their feet wet with The Essential Steve Earle,
while the curious completist might enjoy Early Tracks, a look at
his rough early '80s formative years.
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