Thursday, April 25, 2019

CD Odyssey Disc 1254: James McMurtry

Game 1 of Bruins/Blue Jackets goes to the Bruins. All that excitement left me exhilarated, but a little drained. I’ve got enough left in the tank to pilot the Argo through another review in this CD Odyssey.

Disc 1254 is… Complicated Game
Artist: James McMurtry

Year of Release: 2014

What’s up with the Cover? Floorboards! Looks like a piece has been cut out just in front of the standing figure. What could someone be hiding in there? Stolen loot? A treasure map? The tell-tale heart?

How I Came to Know It: I discovered James McMurtry just a few months ago through his 2008 album “Just  Us Kids”. This precipitated a deep dive into his back catalogue. Five of his albums made the cut but “Complicated Game” wasn’t one of them.

Then I introduced my friend Mark to him. Mark liked it a lot and sent me “Copper Canteen”. It was a great song but I couldn’t find it on any of the five albums I had decided to get. A bit more digging found it on “Complicated Game”. I’d decided against that one after one listen, but this provided a second chance. This time I liked it a lot more, so thanks to Mark for this one!

How It Stacks Up:  I have five James McMurtry albums (I’m still on the hunt for “Childish Games”). I bought them all in the last few months and I don’t feel qualified to stack them up. I’ll guess it is in the middle and put it 3rd, but don’t hold me to it – I just started on my James McMurtry journey.

Ratings:  4 stars

James McMurtry is down-home wisdom, served up through the lives of blue-collar heroes, scarred inside and outside, but soldiering on. The mix of Americana folk and traditional country on “Complicated Game” is the perfect delivery system for tales like these.

In terms of singing style, McMurtry sits solidly with Guy Clark and Steve Earle, with a splash of Warren Zevon on the songs with a rock edge. Like all those artists, McMurtry doesn’t have a massive vocal range, but he writes songs for the sweet spots in his voice, and he has a gravelly tone that is well-suited to storytelling.

McMurtry is sneaky-good on guitar, which he plays like he sings; raw and unhurried. His strum is strong and determined and sounds like it is being played on an old back porch or the end of a pier.

The record is replete with rural imagery that had me thinking back to my small town roots. The album starts you off with a jolt with these lines from “Copper Canteen”:

“Honey, don’t you be yellin’ at me when I’m cleanin’ my gun
I’ll wash the blood off the tailgate when deer season’s done.”

This could sound grim or threatening, but in the context of the song it’s just a little cantankerous. The narrator isn’t a murderer, and there’s no threat here either; he’s just taking care of his rifle and being careful about it. Later he gets out and shovels the walkway and chops firewood. Not sexy or dangerous, just important. That said, he really ought to wash the blood off the tailgate before it dries…

Copper Canteen” shows an edge that is common to many of the characters you’ll encounter on “Complicated Game.” On “Carlisle’s Haul” poachers drop their nets illegally and are caught in the end by the warden, with McMurtry noting that tough times fall on criminal and cop alike in depressed resource towns. On “South Dakota” an ex-military man tries to make an honest life out of ranching, only to find his cattle frozen dead from a flash blizzard. Like “Carlisle’s Haul” the story ends with the arrival of the law, this time with the sheriff serving an eviction notice.

Even on the album’s love songs, things are complicated. “Copper Canteen” has a couple that has settled into mild disgruntlement, and “She Loves Me” includes a love affair, a divorce and a dream of reconciliation where you can’t tell if it’s based on deserved confidence or wishful thinking.

Through it all, McMurtry has a deep appreciation for the power of the specific in telling a story. These lines from “Long Island Sound” evoke an entire life in one small scene:

“I had a tire run low so I dug through the glove box
I needed the manual to locate the jack
I found a couple old picks and a 20-guage shot shell
Left from a dove hunt a couple year’s back.”

“Complicated Game” is an apt title for an album with so much uncertainty, but McMurtry draws a thick line of character through every track that makes you root for every rancher, rogue and romantic you encounter.

Even though this was my first deep dive into a James McMurtry album it felt like I was in the company of an old friend. I look forward to the rest of the journey. I might even give all those rejected albums a second chance in case they end up being as good as this one.

Best tracks: Copper Canteen, Ain’t Got No Place, Carlile’s Haul, South Dakota, Long Island Sound, Cutter

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