Tuesday, April 16, 2013

Steve Earle & the Dukes (& Duchesses): "The Low Highway" (album review)

We're closing on thirty years since Steve Earle first burst onto the scene as a country rock rebel, aiming to through kerosene on what was a pretty stagnant and homogeneous genre.

He's back this week with another album of new material, The Low Highway, with his road backing band The Dukes (& Duchesses) getting billing as well.  However, now it's Earle that's become stagnant.

Tracks like "After Mardi Gras" are listless numbers, and the sounds of a man going through the motions.  They are a far cry from the passionate declarations of a self-appointed defender of the downtrodden.  Sure, the subject matter of songs like the mumbled "Burnin' It Down" is still about perceived injustices, but one gets the sense that Earle's heart really isn't all in it.  Without that passion, the resigned country folk of the title cut is simply boring.

Subtlety has never been a big component of Earle's music, but he's ham-fisted even for him, on "Invisible".  He aims for poignancy on "Remember Me", a song to his son Justin, but it's a sentiment that the public doesn't really need to hear.

A few instances stand out as fresh and exciting.  Earle might as well be pouring gasoline on a bonfire for the ass-kicking rocker "Calico County".  His wife, and on this occasion bandmate, Allison Moorer contributes accordion and vocals on the jaunty jam "That All You Got?".  The bluegrass of "Warren Hellman's Banjo" and "Down the Road, Pt 2" will get your toes tapping at the very least.

After a string of records that have been becoming more and more generic sounding, one is left to ask Steve Earle the question: 'that all you got?'

Best tracks: "Calico County", "That All You Got?"

Track listing for The Low Highway:
  • The Low Highway
  • Calico County
  • Burnin' It Down
  • That All You Got?
  • Love's Gonna Blow My Way
  • After Mardi Gras
  • Pocket Full of Rain
  • Invisible
  • Warren Hellman's Banjo
  • Down the Road, Pt. 2
  • 21st Century Blues
  • Remember Me

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