Saturday, April 2, 2016

CD Odyssey Disc 851: Steve Earle

It is another beautiful day outside and I’m looking forward to taking the top down on my convertible. I am thinking of selling it soon, so every day in the sun is that much more precious.

Disc 851 is….Sidetracks
Artist: Steve Earle

Year of Release: 2002

What’s up with the Cover? Steve Earle keeps putting bad Tony Fitzpatrick art on his album covers and I keep panning it. I admire Steve’s tenacity more than he would admire mine. This is one of Fitzpatrick’s better efforts, but it is still not good.

How I Came To Know It: I just keep drilling through Steve Earle albums as they get released, and this one is no exception.

How It Stacks Up:  I have 17 Steve Earle albums, but I tend to not rank his album that consists only of Townes Van Zandt albums. I’m not sure why, since this next album is over fifty percent cover songs, but I guess there’s enough original content I figured it was fair. In any case, “Sidetracks” lands a respectable ninth out of the 16.

Ratings: 4 stars

“Sidetracks” is a collection of songs spanning a six or seven year span that were either written for movies or covers of other artists. Despite coming from different years the collection feels remarkably cohesive. Funny how good music just goes well with other good music.

Every artist that makes enough albums will eventually end up with a bunch of songs that for whatever reason didn’t make it onto on one of them. Often those songs are best left on the recording studio floor, but sometimes (such as Pearl Jam’s “Lost Dogs” or Tom Waits’ “Brawlers,Bawlers and Bastards”) there are great songs that deserve to be heard. “Sidetracks” is full of examples of those.

Five of the album’s 13 tracks are Earle originals, and despite the other eight being some of rock’s most iconic songs Earle’s work stands shoulder to shoulder with them. It is a testament to his exceptional songwriting talent and artistic vision.

With one exception (“Sara’s Angel,” an instrumental) the Earle tracks are songs recorded for movies. I’d heard of all four movies (“The Rookie,” Pay It Forward,” “The Horse Whisperer” and “Dead Man Walking”) but I’ve only seen one. This is just as well, because that would have had me associate the songs with movies that don’t appeal to me, providing a context outside of the music that isn’t necessary.

In fact, the best song on the record is “Me and the Eagle” which is a masterpiece of songwriting. The song soars up musically at the same time as you imagine the eagle sailing higher and higher into the mountains, and the narrator travels to those lonesome backcountry spaces where he is most at peace. Lyrics, melody, arrangement and theme all come together perfectly and when we hear Earle sing:

“When it’s all said and done, I usually find
Me and the eagle are of the same mind.”

We can hear the voice of a taciturn loner, settled on some mountain crag staring out at a west coast wilderness, content with his own company.

The other movie song that appealed was “Ellis Unit One.” Taken from “Dead Man Walking.” It is song opposing the death penalty. This is a topic that brings out the best in Earle (he wrote another masterpiece on the same topic, “Billy Austin,” for his 1990 album “The Hard Way,” reviewed way back at Disc 179).

Here he once again humanizes the issue, this time from the perspective of a guard that has spent a career taking prisoners down the hall to their death, first to the electric chair and later to lethal injection. “Billy Austin” captures the terror of the prisoner, and “Ellis Unit One” bravely explores the emotional toll on those that carry out the sentence. The song ends with:

"Well, I've seen 'em fight like lions, boys
I've seen 'em go like lambs
And I've helped to drag 'em when they could not stand
And I've heard their mamas cryin' when they heard that big door slam
And I've seen the victim's family holdin' hands

"Last night I dreamed that I woke up with straps across my chest
And something cold and black pullin' through my lungs
'N even Jesus couldn't save me though I know he did his best
But he don't live on Ellis Unit One"

As a treatise against the death penalty, “Ellis Unit One” is a hell of a lot more effective than the movie “Dead Man Walking” which I found heavy handed and preachy. Earle manages to deliver a harder emotional gut punch than Tim Robbins’ film can manage over two hours.

In terms of the covers, Earle covers a lot of ground. He does “Johnny Too Bad” and manages to seamlessly marry his own style with the Jamaican rhythms of the Slickers original. He takes on Nirvana’s “Breed” and gives it so much raw rock power that I ended up preferring it over the original.

The Flying Burrito Brothers’ war protest song “My Uncle” and the back-road trucker whimsy of Little Feat’s “Willin’” are both perfect for Earle’s iconoclastic troubadour aesthetic and he doesn’t disappoint.

The Chamber Brothers’ “Time Has Come Today” is buoyed by great guest vocals from Sheryl Crow, but pulled down by having to listen to Abby Hoffman’s shrill complaints of yesteryear. “Creepy Jackalope Eye” is well performed, but I don’t like the Supersuckers’ song to begin with, so I could have lived without that one.

For all that, this record is a great example of how some artists are so good that their table scraps are better than what most people make the lead track on their record. Earle is a master of his craft, whether creating stories of his own, or reinterpreting someone else in his own inimitable style.

Best tracks:  Open Your Window, Me and the Eagle, Johnny Too Bad, Breed, Ellis Unit One, Willin’, My Uncle

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