Even in the beginning, back when he fooled people into believing he could compete with Clint Black and Dwight Yoakam on country radio, Steve Earle was a professional leftist rabble-rouser with lines like "I was born in the land of plenty/Now there ain't enough" poking out of the highway honky-tonk on his 1986 debut Guitar Town.
Since returning in the mid-'90s from a heroin-addiction and imprisonment-imposed hiatus, Earle hasn't tried to fool anyone. He's basically Michael Moore with little sense of humor and a command of outlaw mythology. I want to abolish the death penalty and create economic justice too, but I wish I were less convinced that topic A on Earle's records is confirming and celebrating his own righteousness.
Earle's latest, Jerusalem, is pretty political, if overtly about 9/11 on only one track, and can't help but be compared to other recent topical albums -- most prominently, Bruce Springsteen's The Rising and Sleater-Kinney's One Beat -- in what has become a 2002 pop subgenre. One potential flaw of The Rising (though, given the overwhelming decency of Springsteen's mission, it's a minor flaw at best) is its refusal to engage in politics, dissent, confusion, etc. Jerusalem has the opposite problem: There's little acknowledgment here that the Bill of Rights wasn't the only thing damaged on or by September 11th. When Earle writes in the liner notes that "We'll survive this too," it's not that he's talking about Ashcroft's attack on civil liberties. It's all he's talking about. That's but one of many reasons why I treasure One Beat so much more than these white-guy-authoritative takes. It feels less strategically fussed over and more spontaneous, fully lived, felt.
The attention-getter on Jerusalem is "John Walker's Blues," a literary stroke in which Earle imagines himself as the voice of the "American Taliban." And if some of the liberties Earle takes are a little fishy (did Lindh really embrace Islam because he was alienated by the images of the "kids in the soda pop ads" on MTV?), it's still a commendable and even-handed attempt to make a media symbol flesh and blood --a smart little song that blends guitar skronk with qawwali chants to arrive at its great sardonic punchline: "Allah had some other plan/Some secret not revealed/Now they're draggin' me back with my head in a sack/To the land of the infidel."
But, despite the presence of "John Walker's Blues" and the this-too-shall-pass bookends (the fatalistic "Ashes to Ashes" and the defiantly hopeful title track), Jerusalem is similar to The Rising and One Beat in yet another way: Its weighty subject matter never dominates the music. If The Rising is the most humane arena-rock this side of All That You Can't Leave Behind and One Beat the most uplifting, unstoppable punk-rock since the heyday of the Clash, Jerusalem is smaller-sounding but no less rocking. It's a quick, crafty roots-rock record, with session-pro drummer Will Rigby pushing a bunch of Nashville cats along and Earle as cagey a singer and songwriter (the Tex-Mex border song "What's a Simple Man to Do?" is worthy of Los Lobos) as ever. Case in point is "Amerika V. 6.0 (The Best We Can Do)": It's a statement of principles, but it wouldn't work without that jumpstarting roots-rock riff and those factory-belt drums, not to mention Earle's charismatic slurred-and-drawled vocal delivery. -- Chris Herringon
It seems like everything you read these days about Ryan Adams centers on his tortured cowboy-poet image rather than his actual talents -- and that's a shame. Adams has a lot more to offer the world than a rumpled Western shirt and a haircut that cries out for a little attention.
Adams is a fine, emotional vocalist and an ace songwriter. Last year's Gold was so convincing and consistent over its 76-minute span that it made one wonder if Adams was even capable of penning a bad tune. Maybe not. The story goes that, during the frenetic making of Gold, Adams assembled enough material to fill four CDs --the 13 "demos" collected here are part of the leftovers. But labeling these songs "demos" is a little misleading: Fans will find that this is just the latest Ryan Adams album, full of songs as well-crafted as anything on Gold. After listening to this mostly acoustic set of tunes, it's tempting to cast Adams in his own unique mold -- that of a trouble-making purveyor of traditionalism. But you don't have to be a country-music fan to appreciate Demolition.
Like Adams, Kim Richey is one of a small group of recording artists who may end up saving country music, and, like Adams (and Lucinda Williams and Willie Nelson and the crew behind O Brother, Where Art Thou?), she records for renegade Nashville label Lost Highway. This coterie of musicians is doing some amazing things to the country genre these days -- turning it upside down, inside out, and redefining its former backwoods boundaries. As a result, the music sounds as good as it ever has: simple, fresh, and, most importantly, honest.
Rise is Richey's fourth major-label release and her first for Lost Highway. The record kicks off with "Girl in a Car," a song that conjures up images of some restless romantic driving down the two lanes of heartache. The lyrics here, as on so many Richey vignettes, are delivered in the voice of someone clinging in vain to some drifting memory.
Richey's unique songwriting gift lies in taking simple lyrics and turning them into beautiful songs, but producer Bill Bottrell's heavy-handed imprint keeps the record from being an unqualified success. Rather than leave Richey's beautifully spare, acoustic arrangements alone, he infuses much of the album with enough studio trickery to keep any teenager happy and make any country purist shudder. The album loses something, especially on tracks where Richey shares a songwriting credit with Bottrell. Richey sounds like she's singing someone else's songs.
Overall, though, Richey's songs are so sharp that the spotty production is forgivable. Hopefully, next time around, she'll find a producer talented enough to let her music stand by itself, and she'll realize what few country artists ever do and what every self-respecting folkie has known all along: In any art, especially songwriting, the only voice you ever need is your own. --Andy Meek
Grades: Demolition: A-; Rise: B+