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The Tao of Steve

 

Steve Earle: Guitar Town

(Special commemorative

edition)

E-Squared/Warner

Brothers, 1986/2002

Rating: 4.2

   

Steve Earle: Sidetracks

E-Squared/Warner Brothers, 2002

Rating: 3.5

 

 

Posted: April 14, 2002

By Kevin Forest Moreau

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), revisiting Guitar Town at this point in his career makes a certain amount of sense.

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, but Guitar Town should be any newcomer's first stop.

 
Earle-ier Works
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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 Ratings Key:
 5.0: A classic
 4.0-4.9: Stellar work
 3.0-3.9: Worthwhile effort
 2.0-2.9: Nothing special
 1.1-1.9: Pretty bad
 0.0-1.0: Total disaster

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