Steve Earle is nothing if not adaptable. In the 1980s, he harnessed his youthful defiance to craft a rough-and-tumble sound that was sturdy enough that even mainstream country perked up its ears upon hearing Guitar Town. He was a rebel when Nashville needed innovation.
In the 1990s, after a drug binge and a prison stint, Earle refashioned himself as an alt-country guru, projecting an unpretentious wisdom on Transcendental Blues, as if hard time was nothing more than a means to an end. He was an elder statesmen when No Depression needed legitimacy.
In the 2000s, however, with Bush entrenched in the White House and the U.S. ensnared in two dubious wars in the Middle East, Earle tried to be the protest singer the left needed so badly, yet Jerusalem and The Revolution Starts… (wait for it) … Now! both sounded like obligatory dissent from an artist duty-bound to sing about the times. Of course, attempting to see the world from the eyes of an American Taliban was commensurate with treason for many listeners, and Earle’s dissent, like that of so many blue-state musicians in the last decade, came across as preaching to the converted.
Since then, Earle has mellowed. He’s entered the lover phase of his career, writing mash notes to New York (Washington Square Serenade) and Townes Van Zandt (the all-covers Townes) with the verve of someone finally settling into being what he wants to be. Lately, he sounds inspired by his wife, Allison Moorer; together they’re the Eric and Tami Taylor of roots rock, exhibiting a hardy chemistry on last year’s Loretta Lynn tribute and on their tour dates together. She makes him sound more human, fragile and often frustrated with the world, but still strong and steely.
Naturally, Earle includes a love song or two on his latest album, I’ll Never Get Out of This World Alive, but strangely, he’s more dumbstruck than lovestruck. Although sweet and sincere, “Every Part of Me” relies almost exclusively on predictable imagery and threadbare turns of phrase, which make it sounds like he’s reading the lyrics from a Hallmark card. “It’s all I can do to mark where you end and where I start,” he sings moonily. And his casual reference to his romantic past as a “trail of tears” seems like an insensitive gaffe just shy of Palin-esque.
Compare that song to some of his earlier love songs, like “Valentine’s Day” and “Goodbye,” and it’s clear something has been lost over the years. Where Earle once wrote achingly specific songs in which each line sounded vital and immediate, on I’ll Never Get Out of This World Alive he writes about himself and his world only in the most general and sometimes even mythic terms. It’s difficult to discern whether that’s due to his newfound contentment or to some nod to a literary voice (the album will be followed by a historical novel with the same title), but these songs are so much less compelling for being so cursory.
The music doesn’t help. He’s assembled what seems to be a fine band (including Moorer, former Nickel Creek fiddler Sara Watkins, and pedal steel virtuoso Greg Leisz), but under T-Bone Burnett’s hand, I’ll Never… sounds like a vague approximation of his once-gritty country-rock sound. The venerated producer, who is most famous for the O Brother Where Art Thou? and Crazy Heartsoundtracks, gives Earle a sheen of respectable, tasteful Americana. But who goes to Earle for polite? The dawdling pace of opener “Waitin’ for the Sky” undermines both the worry and the eventual catharsis of Earle’s lyrics, which come across like wishful thinking. “Lonely Are the Free” is about as gratingly self-serious as that title suggests, and “Meet Me in the Alleyway” tries to conjure the gutter authority of “CCKMP” (off ‘96’s I Feel Alright) or his version of The Wire theme, but the vocal distortions sound almost comical in a song about the health care industry.
“Didn’t know that I was gonna live this long,” Earle sings on “Waitin’ for the Sky.” “Now I’m sittin’ on top of the world.” Especially given his long, hard history, those lines should make for a big moment on this album—a lusty declaration of survival and a heraldic entry into a new decade that many never thought he’d live to see. Yet, neither Earle nor Burnett has the energy to sell those lyrics or convey any sense of relief or triumph. What should be a cry of victory sounds like just another tired moment on a strangely inert album.
Album Review: Yelle – Safari Disco Club
When Yelle arrived on the scene in 2006, it was with “Je Veux Te Voir,” an attitude-packed and hilariously vulgar diss track directed toward rapper Cuizinier for his misogynistic views. The 2007 debut album, Pop Up, spawned two more minor hits with “A Cause des Garçons” and “Ce Jeu.” The French trio, led by singer Julie Budet, established themselves as purveyors of summery electropop. Then, they all but disappeared.
To a certain extent, Yelle have kept busy since their first album, remixing Katy Perry’s “Hot ‘n’ Cold” and appearing on the Kennedy track “John and Yoko,” as well as covering “Who’s That Girl?” by Robyn. However, in such a fast-paced music environment, no one can afford to take four years between albums unless the result is something that could universally be considered a masterpiece. Yelle’s sophomore release, Safari Disco Club, is a good effort that falls short of legendary status.
They’ve grown out of the youthful spirit of Pop Up, though “C’est Pas Une Vie” packs a bright punch, while “Que Veux-Tu” and “Unillusion” make good use of ’80s pop references. Songs like “Chimie Physique” and “La Musique” are much more mature in tone than anything Yelle have released before. There’s also more actual singing from Budet, rather than the sing-rapping previously employed. Safari Disco Club showcases a more developed act, but it doesn’t sound like four years’ worth of growth. The more subdued approach makes sense, but the songs aren’t as engaging as established fans might expect.
The dance scene has changed drastically since Yelle’s debut. This isn’t to say that producers GrandMarnier and Tepr should have gone for a dubstep approach—it wouldn’t suit Budet’s voice, though “S’Eteint le Soleil” has hints of grimey bass—but in an environment where the fresh-faced Londoner Katy B is poised for a takeover, it’s difficult to see where Yelle’s role is now.
The album sounds solid, with plenty of agile synths to spare, but it’s difficult to see what role it plays; it’s not exactly more of the same, but it may as well be. Safari Disco Club is worth a listen, but it fails to assert itself as something that demands listeners’ attention.
Album Review: Broken Social Scene – Forgiveness Rock Record
In the five years since Canadian chamber-rock band Broken Social Scene released its last album, lead Scenester Kevin Drew has ably stepped into indie-stardom, nurturing mass-anticipation for the collective’s upcoming opus.
Enter Forgiveness Rock Record. With the Toronto outfit choosing to explore every bit of the space that their physical largesse affords, the wait has been worth it—even if the album requires a bit of stamina in order to fully grasp the triumph.
Perhaps the group—composed of a fluid membership that often numbers well into double digits—is finally becoming exactly what it is they were likely always going to be: a dramatic, sweeping and engrossing baroque-rock troupe. Besides, it’s not often that a group that has featured a melodica in the past acts as though it’s a power-pop trio, which many of their earlier songs have suggested.
While a lack of sonic cohesion does make itself evident, as the result of a mixed bag of styles that can often distract rather than attract, the significant and unifying thread of Kevin Drew’s Jeff Tweedy-esque, achy vocals equip the entire proceedings with immense heart. Some sort of binding agent is necessary, however, due to the divergent styles showcased. By showing off their skills in Post-rock (“Meet Me in the Basement”), bombastic, arena-anthems (“World Sick”), playful prog (“Chase Scene”) and effective melody making (“Texico Bitches”), it’s quite clear that this is a group that is more comfortable stretching their musical legs than the average listener will likely be sinking their teeth into this album.
Given the amount of time between records, not only is Forgiveness Rock Record an example of good things coming to those who wait, but also, to those who also don’t mind putting forth a little effort to gain great reward.
EP Review: Dan Fisk — Bruises from the Backseat
When an album’s liner notes list multiple banjo players on the same song, you know it’s going to be an enjoyable listen. Dan Fisk has two banjo pickers on“Life and Limb,” from his new solo EP, but that’s not the only thing he’s got going for him on Bruises from the Backseat (out 6/28).
Fisk (an upstate New Yorker who’s spent the past decade in Virginia), has a radio-ready, slightly raspy voice and solid songwriting skills. Album opener “A Thousand Love Songs” is the highlight of the disc, and had it been released fifteen years ago when Vertical Horizon and Matchbox 20 were flying up the charts, Fisk would probably be blowing his nose with $20 bills right now.
The EP’s sole cover is a version of Paul Simon’s “Stranded in a Limousine,” which features fellow area singer-songwriter Ted Garber on harmonica. It feels a little out of place among the more mellow tracks on the record, but it’s definitely a fun listen.
Bruises from the Backseat is a promising solo release from Fisk. Let’s hope a full-length record is next.
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