BEST OF ELSEWHERE 2008: James McMurtry: Just Us Kids (Lightning Rod/Elite)

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James McMurtry: Ruins of the Realm
BEST OF ELSEWHERE 2008: James McMurtry: Just Us Kids (Lightning Rod/Elite)

The murky photo of a small, barroom audience on the inner sleeve of this brittle and typically dark album by singer-poet McMurtry might have included me.

It looks like it was taken in the Continental Club in Austin where I caught him and his band the Heartless Bastards a couple of years ago playing their regular gig.

Since his remarkable debut Too Long in the Wasteland at the opening of the 90s, this son of acclaimed writer Larry has been taking his literary obsevations and snapshots of the disaffected and the dark side across half a dozen albums notable for the consistency of their vision -- but increasingly the sameness of his snapped and slightly detached delivery.

At its best that adds an even more disconcerting aspect to his songs -- many of which come with titles which read like warnings: Candyland, Broken Bed, Where'd You Hide the Body, Jaws of Life . . .

This sometimes emotionally bruising album -- the band delivering dense support like a more refined Crazy Horse in places -- doesn't waver from that established flat delivery, but here as always the appeal is the character sketches and phrases which may contain a nasty observation.

He nails his heart on the door too in God Bless America ("we'll go git that A-rab oil, suck it up through the barrel of a gun"), Ruins of the Realm and the spare Cheney's Toy ("you're no longer Daddy's boy but you're only Cheney's Toy").

But mostly McMurtry sings of characters on the margins of society, the outsiders looking in, the dispossessed and embittered -- and these he evokes in magically few words: "Just another night the missus and me, sittin' on the couch watchin' Court TV"; "I got a room with a freeway view, I'm only home at night, I ain't ever comin' back to you"; "I can't go back to Tennessee, that Nascar country's not for me" . . .

With John Dee Graham guesting on lap steel guitar -- he opens for McMurtry fequently and his albums are worth seeking out -- and Ian McLagan on organ and barrelhouse piano, this outing has that shadowland quality tempered a little.

But McMurtry as always likes to confront hard truths with the economy of a short story and hard-edged images.

He might not be a comfortable listen (the haunting and compelling Fire Line Road deals with abuse in the victim's voice) but he is one of America's finest singer-songwriters and his work rarely falls below a very high, self-imposed threshold.

This is a dark ride.

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