Monday, July 13, 2020

CD Odyssey Disc 1386: Steve Earle

Welcome back to the CD Odyssey! This next album is one of the few I bought last year without hearing it first. When Guy Clark’s writing the songs, it’s an easy chance to take.

Disc 1386 is…. Guy
Artist: Steve Earle & the Dukes

Year of Release: 2019

What’s up with the Cover? Another cover by Tony Fitzpatrick. This one has a bird on it, which as we all know, makes all things better. In fact, this is one of the best covers Tony Fitzpatrick has done for Earle. This meant I disliked it a lot less than usual. Make no mistake, I still disliked it. I just disliked it less.  

How I Came To Know It: I had given up buying Steve Earle albums automatically a few years back, when I felt his quality began to slip. However, Earle won me back here by doing a cover album full of Guy Clark songs. I had loved “Townes,” Earle’s homage to Townes Van Zandt, and I was expecting great things here as a result.

How It Stacks Up: I don’t think an album full of cover songs should stack up against regular studio albums. It just seems wrong. If I were to just stack it up against “Townes” it comes in a distant second, though.

Ratings: 3 stars

Timing isn’t everything, but it does matter. Way back in 2009 when I reviewed “Townes” (Disc 28) I had never heard of Townes Van Zandt. I’d heard a couple of his songs along the way (“Pancho and Lefty” for example) but I had no idea it was his song. So Steve Earle’s introduction to his music was a revelation.

Fast forward ten years, and Earle does an album of Guy Clark songs, in honour of Guy’s death three years earlier. The difference is that this time I was well-acquainted with every one of them. This made me a lot more critical of Earle’s interpretations. Sometimes he nails it, and sometimes I just hear the Clark original in the background and wished that it was on instead.

That said, “Guy” is a solid record. Like “Townes” it is hard to go wrong when your material comes from one of country music’s all-time great songwriters and Steve Earle’s love for his old friend and mentor is evident throughout.

The best tunes are the ones that suit Earle’s temperament to begin with. Guy and Steve are like your two favourite, but very different uncles. Guy Clark is the uncle that grills up a mean hamburger at the family cookout, tells you vaguely dirty jokes when your mom is still in earshot, and buys you a Swiss Army knife when you’re still a couple years too young to play with one safely.

Steve Earle is the uncle that argues politics with his brother-in-law, tells you stories about riding shotgun in a Humvee through Fallujah and how he once saw one man stab another man in the parking lot of a Tijuana whorehouse. Like I said, they’re both great uncles, just different.

I should note at this point that Townes Van Zandt is a third cool uncle but doesn’t feature in this comparison; he got drunk at home and missed the barbecue entirely. But I digress…

The point is that Earle is best doing Clark songs that are in his wheelhouse. That tends to be the darker stuff, or the sad romantic tunes. “Desperadoes Waiting for a Train” and “The Last Gunfighter Ballad” are both solid tunes about broken down anti-heroes. Earle elevates them and makes them pulse with heartache.

That Old Time Feeling” takes full advantage of Earle’s classic southern drawl, and sways in just the right time to make you want to circle around the block if only to play it a second time. “Out in the Parking Lot” has Earle delving back into the country-rock of his Copperhead Road days, which works masterfully. Blasting out a nasty reverb guitar and singing about the grimy activity that happens late at night in parking lots, Earle takes owns every moment of this song.

When the songs really need Clark’s homespun happiness, Earle doesn’t deliver at the same level. “Dublin Blues” is a Guy Clark classic, but Earle’s version feels a bit rushed, and it takes away from the core of what makes the song great; regret and reminiscence.

On “The Ballad of Laverne and Captain Flint” and “New Cut Road” Earle and the Dukes decide to play loose and easy to create the down-home, rustic quality. It isn’t that they’re out of time – the playing is impeccable – but it is hard to match that easy, relaxed quality Guy Clark brought to certain songs. Also, Earle slurs a little in the interests of being organic, and I wasn’t digging it.

Finally, at 16 tracks and 60 minutes, the album is too long. I imagine it is pretty hard to cut tracks when you’re playing covers of one of your idols and closest friends, but that’s the task. Kill your darlings, Steve, or in this case, kill Guy’s.

The album ends on a high note, with a delightful rendition of “Old Friends” with Earle sharing the mic with a host of guest vocalists, including Terry Allen, Jerry Jeff Walker, Rodney Crowell, Jo Harvey Allen and Emmylou Harris. You can feel the love they all bring to the recently departed Clark, who left a lasting impression on many lives with his music, including mine. If Earle’s love-letter isn’t quite at the level he achieves on “Townes,” it doesn’t mean there is any less love to be had here, and yeah, “Old Friends” tore me up a little.

I miss you too, Guy.

Best tracks: Desperados Waiting for a Train, That Old Time Feeling, The Last Gunfighter Ballad, Out in the Parking Lot, Old Friends

No comments: