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The Graham Weekly Album Review #1500

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Steve Earle: Washington Square Serenade
by George Graham

(New West 6128 As broadcast on WVIA-FM 10/10/2007)

The roots rock movement has been around in various forms for more than two decades. Formed as a kind of reaction to the synthesizer-dominated pop of the time, the music has been promulgated by generally younger musicians who have adopted the tried-and-true ingredients which decades earlier gave rise to the rock and roll, including folk, country and blues, performed on instrumentation that goes back to the early days of rock.

One of the pioneers on the scene is Steve Earle, who in 1986 appeared with his Guitar Town album, and followed that up with some very successful records that epitomized the emerging roots rock scene, with bits of country twang, electric guitars cranked up loud, and lyrics in the tradition of the folksingers of the 1960s.

The Texas-raised Earle has had his share of ups and downs in his career and life. He is said to have dropped out of eighth grade to pursue music in Houston, then at age 20, in 1975, moved to Nashville to try to launch a career as a songwriter, and was befriended by Guy Clark, who helped get Earle a job as a staff songwriter with a publishing company. Earle also appeared on Clark's first album on backing vocals.

Earle's first few albums began to attract attention in both the rock and country worlds. But by 1990, his long-running drug problems, including heroine addiction, began to catch up with him, and in 1993, he essentially dropped out of the music business, and eventually ended up in jail on drug and firearms charges. But while imprisoned, he kicked the drug habit, and after his release in 1994 began a prolific musical period that also showed a wider range of influences, including some acoustic recordings and a collaboration with bluegrass master Del McCoury and his band. Earle also co-founded a record label to release his own and the music of others.

Steve Earle has just released his first new studio album since 2004, called Washington Square Serenade.

Long identified with the upstart Nashville scene, Steve Earle recently decided to move to New York, and that is the underlying theme of his new CD, his 12th studio album, and 17th full album overall. And while Earle's music has been diverse, this CD does seem to mark a rather different direction, a more laid-back, folk-oriented release, that features some particularly fine songs, some autobiographical, a couple of old-fashioned love songs, and a some that reflect his view of the world -- he has long been known for championing causes and making political commentary though his music, on especially his more recent CDs. Although, there are parts of the mew CD that rock, the basic undercurrent of the recording is acoustic. The title, Washington Square Serenade is a nod to the New York folk scene of the 1960s. The result is one of the best recordings of Earle's career. The material is thoughtful but not preachy, there are some more approachable songs for wider audiences, but the instrumentation can be eclectic at times, including both a banjo and some loops and samples.

He is joined by a fairly diverse band that includes his wife Alison Moorer on backing vocals, John Medeski, of the jam-band organ trio Medeski, Martin and Wood, on keyboards, along with Jeremy Chatzky and John Spiker alternating on bass, Marty Beller on drums and his son Patrick Earle on percussion.

The CD opens with a song that deals with Earle's relocation to New York, Tennessee Blues, about making the move and leaving "guitar town" behind. <<>>

Also set in Earle's new hometown is Down Here Below which has as one of its characters Pale Male, the falcon that captured the imagination of New York, when it set up a nest on a ritzy apartment building near Central Park. He uses it as a kind of metaphor for the different layers of life in the city. <<>>

Earle has been known for his political songs in recent years. He is a little more subtle on Washington Square Serenade as he weighs in the immigration issue. City of Immigrants revels in the diversity of the population of the City, and reminds us of the fact that most of us have immigrant backgrounds. He is joined on the track by members of the Brazilian group Forro in the Dark. <<>>

Also autobiographical is a song whose lyrics those of us in the noblest medium can probably relate to. Earle has done a radio show on one of the pay satellite channels, he wonders on the song Satellite Radio whether anyone is actually listening. <<>>

The CD has two adjacent love songs, one about love going well, and the other, the opposite. Sparkle and Shine is an appealing celebration of one's significant other. <<>>

On the other hand, following that is Come Home to Me which as its title suggests, is a song of apparently lost love. <<>>

Earle includes a kind of classic roots rock track, in the style he pioneered, though with mostly acoustic instrumentation. Jericho Road has all the requisite ingredients nicely assembled into a kind of allegorical song. <<>>

Earle addresses a problem that he has dealt with, addiction, in this case a more contemporary problem, a prescription pain killer which is being widely abused. The song is called Oxycontin Blues, and it's written from the standpoint of someone who fell prey to the substance. <<>>

Earle comes up with an interesting combination of a tribute and protest song on Steve's Hammer (for Pete). Presumably the Pete in question is Pete Seeger, and the song expresses hope for a day when some of the things that the folksingers protested forty or fifty years ago will have been rectified. <<>>

Steve Earle's new CD Washington Square Serenade, his first studio album in three years, and the first since he moved to New York, is his one the best of his long career. He brings together some of the best facets of his music, and does it tastefully with a sympathetic group, including family. Though he still has opinions on the state of the world to offer, Earle seems more at peace on this recording, and apparently is enjoying his relocation to New York and what the music scene there has to offer.

Our grade for sound quality is an A-minus. The recording captures the mood and atmosphere of the music, and adds some subtle studio effects here and there. Earle's previous albums he did on his own label were known for their heavily compressed, in-your-face sound. Although I would not describe Washington Square Serenade as an audiophile recording, its dynamic range is an improvement over its predecessors.

In his for than 30-year recording career, Steve Earle has made the transition from Texas singer-songwriter to Nashville rebel and now to New York folkie. Once again, he has succeeded and again proves he is among our best singer-songwriters.

(c) Copyright 2007 George D. Graham. All rights reseved.
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