Posts Tagged ‘ Steve Earle ’

Steve Earle & The Dukes (& Duchesses) – The Low Highway (Music Review)

The Low Highway cover

Steve Earle & The Dukes (& Duchesses) – The Low Highway

Two years after the excellent I’ll Never Get Out of This World Alive, Steve Earle returns with a solid but unexciting album. The Low Highway does everything fans will want from Earle, but has no real standout songs.

This time performing with “The Dukes (& Duchesses)”, Earle’s band makes this his countriest album in years. Confident, polished, and sticking to a familiar style, this easily fits in with the pop-Americana resurgence of these post-Mumford years. But, while the album mixes his blues-rock with everything from harmonica to fiddle to jazz piano, it’s usually comfortable with slow ballads that fit Earle’s age and his pain. It’s a good choice, and one that stands out next to younger, less soulful bands. Again, it’s just missing those couple great songs that would define it.

So what songs are on this? Well, one of the highlights is “Invisible”, a heartfelt story of homelessness. Earle is one of the few people who still seem to remember that country has a tradition of sympathy for the downtrodden. He sometimes comes across as over-earnest, though, as on “Calico County”‘s description of a poor, meth-blighted town. It’s the rock track on this album, but his heart doesn’t seem in it. Somewhere in between is “The Low Highway”. His personal daydream of hitchhiking mixes in scenes of poor folk on the road and damaged veterans, but they sometimes feel shoehorned in.

Every Earle album has a duet with a woman, and “That All You Got?” is an energetic, swinging track that leads into the equally upbeat “Love’s Gonna Blow My Way”. It’s the most fun part of the album, but there are a couple other sections that come close. On the other hand, those stand out against a couple disappointments. “21st Century Blues” tries to rail against the injustices of today, but his complaints too often sound dated. Missing “flying cars”, “teletransporters”, and Kennedy’s promises, he overlooks the wonders that today does offer. The old promises of jetpacks and Dick Tracey watches have been completely outdone by the reality of smartphones and internet. Not that that is Earle’s main point – there are plenty of injustices around us as well – but his lighthearted comments serve to make him sound out of touch instead of humanizing his political complaints.

Overall, Earle is still refusing to settle down, and he’s a good songwriter who (usually) knows how to play to his strengths. The Low Highway is a nice change of pace, if not one of the albums that stand out over his career.

Grade: B-


Steve Earle – I’ll Never Get Out of This World Alive (Music Review)

I'll Never Get Out of This World Alive cover

Steve Earle - I'll Never Get Out of This World Alive

“Was a time I would of said them days was gone, but I’m givin’ it another whirl”, sings Steve Earle at the opening of I’ll Never Get Out of This World Alive. And he is – this album is a return to form for a singer-songwriter who has been frustratingly unfocused of late. The sticker on the CD cover emphasizes this, announcing it as the “first album of new songs in four years”, glossing over the recent live and cover albums. (You’d need to go back seven years, to The Revolution Starts Now, to find his last truly good album.)

As is tradition for Earle, that title track is one of the album standouts and sets the theme for the songs that follow. In this case, “Waitin’ On The Sky” is a personal look back on his life, and introduces a collection of songs loosely about mortality and endings. This is a turn from the more overtly political songs that made up his strongest output in the past decade. Earle only approaches politics in a couple songs: “The Gulf of Mexico” portrays the recent oil spill through the eyes of blue-collar oil workers who know no other way of life, and “God Is God” explains that only a fool would claim to speak for God or know His intent. They seem perfectly harmless and self-evident, but it’s part of Earle’s genius that he can make the claims he does in the conservative language of traditional songs. Most songwriters would have stumbled horribly when hinting at the way large corporations destroy traditions or implying that God is distant from our daily life.

Those political songs are few, though, and the everyman folksiness pervades the entire album. Earle is a countrified version of Springsteen, with a raspy, blues-infused edge that producer T. Bone Burnett brings to the surface here. As a reassuring, traditional Steve Earle album, the review could easily be lifted from one of his past albums: Murder ballad “Molly-O” is an original, but sounds like it must have been a traditional song that was somehow overlooked before. The storytelling songs (“I Am A Wanderer” and “Lonely Are The Free”, along with the opener) showcase Earle’s strengths, while the love songs (like “Every Part Of Me”) are decent but never the highlights. The expected male-female duet, “Heaven or Hell”, is a little weaker than normal – the song needs a little more emotion to sell the claim “I just can’t tell [if] this kinda love comes from Heaven or Hell”. Then there is a half-successful experiment, in this case “Meet Me In the Alleyway”. It’s got a great sound reminiscent of Tom Waits doing Louisiana blues, but its story about dark New Orleans magic is uninteresting.

No songs are bad, though, and every one feels like it has a place on this album. The lesser ones only earn that description next to the frankly stunning standouts. Don’t worry about Steve Earle’s recent missteps; After a 25-year career, I’ll Never Get Out of This World Alive still sounds like the work of a musician in his prime.

Grade: B+