Friday, July 26, 2019

CD Odyssey Disc 1286: James McMurtry

I’ve had a pretty frustrating couple of days juggling various labour jobs I am not skilled enough to do myself. Three visits from tradespeople and every visit resulted in some unexpected complication. Argh! However, while the situations were annoying, the people involved were all great and once again reaffirmed my faith in that old Neil Peart line, “folks are basically decent, most of the time”.

Frustrated as I was, I went downtown this afternoon, ate five tacos at my favourite Mexican joint, and went CD shopping. This helped a lot. I found a couple good ones – the new Bleached record, and two very old Billy Idol records I only recently decided I wanted. Tonight they’ll help me forget that I’ll be spending the weekend without a kitchen sink.

Disc 1286 is… Saint Mary of the Woods
Artist: James McMurtry

Year of Release: 2002

What’s up with the Cover? A bunch of trees in the distance. I doubt these are the titular woods – they look more like what you might see lining a highway to keep the wind down or prevent soil erosion. Bo-ring.

How I Came to Know It: I did a deep dive of James McMurtry’s back catalogue recently, and this album was one of those that caught my attention.

How It Stacks Up:  I have six James McMurtry albums. I’ll rank “Saint Mary of the Woods” at #2. However, since I am still grokking a lot of McMurtry’s work, I reserve the right to adjust that spot up or down.

Ratings: 4 stars

James McMurtry is an average singer, an above-average guitar player and a brilliant songwriter. Put it all together and you get an album where the vocals have limited range, but the stories soar.

McMurtry isn’t a chart topper – I suspect his hard-hitting brand of alternative country is not welcome in mainstream Nashville. This can be a blessing in disguise, as these songs are not restricted by song length (most are five minutes or longer). McMurtry uses the time wisely, revealing the whole melody early on, then spending all that extra time telling a story.

Sometimes these songs are pure poetry, nestled into McMurtry’s easy guitar style. The songs aren’t technically complicated, but the guitar work is multi-layered and played with a rich tone and delicate touch, serving as an emotional backdrop for each verse. The title track is laden with powerful imagery, including:

“Sunrise off the lake shining in your eyes
Shining on the wasted and the wise
All you hear ringing in your ears are bald-faced lies
That scream like gulls in that smoke-stained amber sky.”

Mainstream country artists singing about “drinking beer/down by the pier/wishing you were here” can only dream of pulling together a quatrain like that.

Mostly, McMurtry paints amazing character studies. “Gulf Road” and “Gone to the Y” tell stories of rough-edged characters who have problems with drinking and a few other things besides. “Choctaw Bingo” is a family reunion where the family members brewing up whisky and meth, run red lights and shoot guns at night.

These are all great, but my favourite song makes the geography itself the character. “Out Here in the Middle” is a song that juxtaposes city values and country values. McMurtry doesn’t take a side, he just points out that life in each is different, and nowhere’s going to be perfect. It’s a song with an anthemic sway that makes you want to raise a glass and toast, even as it makes you uncertain of just what you’re celebrating.

The album mixes country styles with straight up blues, with varying degrees of success. Most of the songs that are steeped in a blues riff appealed to me less, but that is just personal preference. “Red Dress” was the exception. It is a blues track with grit to spare. McMurtry plays the part of a drunk and jealous husband watching his wife walk out the door in a sexy dress that he knows didn’t get put on for his benefit. Best line:

“Out the back and down the alley
Gone to get your bucket spiked
Come back when you think you need me
Come back any time you like.”

It’s a curious mix of slander, invective and capitulation.

“Saint Mary of the Woods” is a beautiful record, simple on the surface, deep and complicated underneath. It makes me excited for the next McMurtry album I’ll explore.

Best tracks: Saint Mary of the Woods, Out Here in the Middle, Red Dress, Gulf Road, Gone to the Y

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