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Sweet Sinner

 

Eric Church: Sinners Like Me

EMI, 2006

Rating: 3.8

 

Posted: November 30, 2006

By Kevin Forest Moreau

Mainstream country singers aren't known for their subtlety, and when one works a casual affirmation of faith into a traditional breakup lament, nine times out of ten it's going to smack of pandering to country's Bible belt base. But when Eric Church sings "I believe the Bible / Is cold hard fact," he's setting up the song's punch line: "And I believe that Jesus is coming back / Before she does."

Nothing else on Church's agreeable debut Sinners Like Me is quite as clever as that lyrical hook, but the album is full of consistently listenable and tightly written songs -- built on sturdy country-rock arrangements, accessible melodies and sharp songwriting -- that don't exploit country tropes for easy applause. (Well, there's the awkward "Pledge Allegiance to the Hag," an ode to Merle Haggard, but that's the lone anomaly.) With the exception of "How 'Bout You," an unforced statement of solidarity with his audience, when Church references touchstones of the good-ole-boy life, it's in the service of his characters: The average truck-drivin' protagonist of "Guys Like Me" who's "so rough around the edges it's hard to believe/That girls like you love guys like me," or the reckless singer of "These Boots," who's survived bull riding and "stood toe-to-toe with the biggest baddest Joes," but still can't believe he walked out on his true love.

Throughout Sinners Like Me, Church displays a deceptively easy hand with the wordplay so endemic to modern country ("Can't Take It With You") and a knack for wringing humorous payoffs from conventional end-of-the-relationship fare: "There's absolutely positively no doubt in my mind / That O.J. did it, Lee Harvey didn't, and she's really gone this time," he sings in the chorus to "Before She Does." But he also proves himself skilled at more subtle songwriting, the kind one more often expects to find on the singer-songwriter side of the Nashville divide, as on the reflective title track and the arresting "Lightning," which follows a convicted killer's final thoughts before facing the electric chair.

It's probably Nashville heresy to say so, but those latter moments -- and the rocking "Two Pink Lines," probably the first song in mainstream country history about a couple sweating out the results of a home pregnancy test -- recall Steve Earle's early work, before he found the conservative Music Row machine too confining, and Church's slightly jagged delivery echoes Earle as well. To this listener's thinking, that's high praise indeed. And while nothing on Sinners Like Me suggests Church will follow in Earle's footsteps, it nonetheless marks him as a talent worth watching.

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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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