J's Indie/Rock Mayhem

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Sunday, September 30, 2007

Now Departing

Steve Earle
Washington Square Serenade
(New West ; 2007)

One of the favorite modes of music fans, when describing an artist, is to peg them to a geographic region that has, in one way or another, informed their art. Usually it's the scene they came up out of (San Francisco, Seattle, New York) or the place they actually grew up ("The South," "England"). And when that artist makes the 'big move' to live elsewhere, they are often scrutinized for elements of their new home place showing up in their work. So, here we have Steve Earle, long tied with the great state of Tennessee (which, as any Southerner knows, is homogenized into a nebulous region known as 'the South'), getting married again and moving to Gotham itself - New York City. What, oh what, do we make of it?

While musically Washington Square Serenade doesn't drift a noticeable amount from Earle's most recent efforts, he doesn't mix words about at least thematically leaving his past in the past. Opener "Tennessee Blues" has a line firmly planted in the middle of each verse - "goodbye guitar town." The farewell to, and obvious use of, the title of his legendary debut album can't be coincidence. As he bids so long to the state he has called home, he also says goodbye to the legacy of his earliest work - the specter of the 'flawless' debut that hangs over every artist who comes hot out of the gate and then faces heavy criticism ever after.

While the impact is subtle, Earle's first big move comes in having John King produce the album. King is one-half of the Dust Brothers, mostly known for their amazing production work on albums like the Beastie Boys' Paul's Boutique and Beck's Odelay, not albums by country contrarians like Earle. But King's touches are light, not getting in the way of Earle's well-trafficked and well-established sound. It's largely evident in some of the percussive loops that drive the album's bookend tracks ("Tennessee Blues," "Down in the Hole") and in guitar textures on others ("Red is the Color").

Washington Square Serenade takes a much more gentle approach than Earle's most recent albums, The Revolution Starts...Now and Jerusalem. Most of the songs flow with an ease and grace that typifies Earle's work. Gone are the big guitars and full-on rock assaults of the more overtly political predecessors. And while the majority of these songs retreat into more of an observational mode and eschew the blatant political grandstanding that Earle is famous for, there are still moments of his impassioned beliefs ("Jericho Road," "Red is the Color," "Steve's Hammer (For Pete)"). And his liner notes certainly haven't become any less blatant. (He sends out an especially warm greeting to Lou Dobbs in the p.s. of his introduction in the liner notes.)

Earle's marriage obviously has had an impact on his writing - new wife Allison Moorer shows up as backing vocalist on a handful of songs on the record and "Sparkle and Shine" and "Days Aren't Long Enough" are very obviously a result of Earle's love for his wife. This lends a much more relaxed and easy tone to the record on a whole - which has the interesting effect of both making it more enjoyable and overall less exciting. If there was one thing you could always count on in a late-period Steve Earle record, it was some pious preaching. While surrounding the few obvious political songs here with softer touches helps to set them off more than on previous records, it also makes them seem a touch out of place.

The album ends with a cover of Tom Waits' "Down in the Hole," and what at first seems like a fairly rote re-doing of the song develops into something more interesting as an undergirding of soft wind instrumentation lends the song a darker and less strident tone. The album, at this point, has breezed by in a little over 40 minutes and 12 tracks, so things listeners might take issue with at least don't linger. Earle's move to New York seems to have had only a minor effect on his writing, but if he truly has said goodbye to Guitar Town, it will be interesting to see where he goes in the future. For now, this is an adequate way to keep moving incrementally forward.

Rating: I(nteresting)

(Rating scale: A, E, I, O, U and sometimes Y)

Decide for Yourself:

Steve Earle - Tennessee Blues

Steve Earle - City of Immigrants (With Forro in the Dark)

Steve Earle - Oxycontin Blues

Download other music by Steve Earle at EMusic

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