(Artwork care of Karen Ramsay (www.karenramsay.com), profile photo care of brianlackeyphotography.com)

Thursday, May 23, 2013

Recording review: Steve Earle & the Dukes (& Duchesses), The Low Highway (2013)

Progressive icon brings humanity to his social themes

Steve Earle makes it look easy on The Low Highway as he transforms from modern-day Woody Guthrie to gritty, soulful rocker, with side-steps into bluegrass and new country. Although his gravelly voice has a limited range, he’s a strong performer and his writing continues to be impeccable. Many of his songs present interesting, realistic characters, from a meth head loser in “Calico County” to the poignant father in “Remember Me”. More than just character sketches, their stories touch on larger themes. Given his progressive politics, Earle relates a number of these tales to the economy and social issues but he shows a defter hand for crafting the songs on this offering than previous albums. In particular, his backing band is chameleon-like, adapting to the shifting genres that Earle selects for the tunes. Beautiful folk arrangements are packed with subtle detail but the group is also up for rough and tumble rock ‘n’ roll, bluegrass twang, or retro Gypsy jazz.

The Low Highway begins by showing off Earle’s troubadour side on the title cut. His voice wheezes, backed by a simple acoustic guitar before the bass steps in behind him. Light touches of fiddle and steel guitar sidle into the background to join the march. An ode to the 99 percenters, the tune revisits Guthrie’s “This Land Is Your Land”:
I saw empty houses on dead end streets
People lining up for something to eat
And the ghost of America was watching me
Through the broken windows of the factories 
The country instrumentation and folky feel are simple but not simplistic. The fiddle and steel guitar fill in the spaces between the verses but refrain from taking full-on leads. This maintains a somber tone that fits the dark State of the Union lyrics.

The next two tracks drop in on some characters along Earle’s Low Highway. The rocking “Calico County” features a solid riff and guitar tone borrowed from the James Gang. The meth-cooking lead character is trapped in his hometown:
Out of here someday
Ain’t that what I used to say?
Army wouldn’t take me
So, I guess I’m gonna have to stay 
His backstory lays out all the cards stacked against him, but the relentless vamp tells us that, like it or not, life just goes on. The protagonist in “Burnin’ It Down” is even more resigned, but he’s found a target to vent on. Sitting in his pickup truck, he’s working up the energy to burn down the local Walmart: “It doesn’t matter much how long I wait/ The door’s always open and it’s never too late.” Earle uses the lazy country arrangement and weary, slurring vocal to convey the scene of a man smoking his last cigarette. Neither of these characters is looking for sympathy but the songs hint at the stories behind what we hear about in the news.

The Low Highway isn’t all dark despair. Despite its mournful beginning, “Warren Hellman’s Banjo” is a celebration of the billionaire banker/bluegrass impresario who started the Hardly Strictly Bluegrass festival in San Francisco. Full of references to classic folk and bluegrass songs, it’s a fitting tip of the hat as it alludes to the long musical chain running through the American songbook. Its traditional feel fits nicely with tunes like the bluesy cut-time of “Love’s Gonna Blow My Way,” which harks back to a 1930s sound. Like the songs in O Brother, Where Art Thou?, the lyrics acknowledge life’s difficulties but they show a resilient backbone of optimism. The jazzy violin accompaniment and solo seem inspired by St├ęphane Grappelli. This is one of the three tracks on the album that Earle wrote for the HBO series “Treme”, along with the Cajun boogie duet “That All You Got?” and the moody “After Mardi Gras”.

Individual tracks on the album offer immersive moments that show off the range and depth of Earle’s songwriting. Although The Low Highway is not a concept album per se, there is a narrative arc that ties these songs into a richer fabric. The dystopian snapshot of America in the title song provides the context for the dead end life in “Calico County”. And where that character sees no choices, he’s followed by a man determined to at least strike a blow, if only against a faceless corporation. From there, it’s a small step up to the defiance in “That All You Got?”, where the characters are beaten down but unbowed. Through denial, optimism, and a reminder of the alternatives, these songs eventually find strength in the universal story of tradition and a forward-looking present, even if “21st Century Blues” casts some doubt on the future. But Earle recognizes that the objective idea of a historical connection isn’t satisfying as a final philosophical answer. Instead, he ends with the elegiac tune “Remember Me”. Written from an aging father to his young child, it humanizes that generational chain. Regardless of whether we’re society’s outcasts or not, whether our problems are public or hidden, each of us loves and all we can really ask for is to be remembered, hopefully fondly

(This review originally appeared on Spectrum Culture)

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