With Steve Earle holed up in New York, decking about in the cultural melting pot, mixing country, folk, and not so hip, hop; John Fogerty wallowing in 'his legacy' with the self reverential (the last refuge of a scoundrel) Revival, a reactionary disappointment that was worthy of a name change to John 'old Fogy' ty. Bruce Springsteen is still lost in the stodge and bloat of Brendan O'Brian's production, and the old master Dylan moribund by the most inept lumbering road band he has ever employed.
Dylan is now more skilled at playing records than making them and there is a huge vacancy waiting to filled: singer/poet required, must speak with the voice of the working man, must be resigned, angry and insightful, must be able to write memorable melodies and be able to scourge and flail them with twisted, barbed, wired, guitar, oh, and did I mention being able to write great choruses?
Well, best get the 'no vacancy' sign out, because with Just Us Kids James McMurtry has filled the vacuum, building on the most overlooked back catalogue in what journalists call Americana, and Dave Alvin calls American Music, to challenge St Mary of the Woods as his career album. McMurtry wanted to title the album the Ruins of the Realm but was worried about the 'glazed look on peoples faces' when they found out the title. Ruins of the Realm might sum up the contents, but it is the people left trying to live their lives in the ruined realm that McMurtry portrays with such graphic compassion, and points out the reasons why: cause and effect that you can dance to. Musically this is McMurtry's finest hour, his whip smart road band enhanced by Ian McLagan who supplies avalanches of bar room piano that tumble over "Freeway View" his best work since the heyday of The Faces, and the evocative harp of Pat Macdonald
The opener, "Bayou Tortus" drops us neck deep, straight in the Green River of Bayou Country Creedence, swampy and threatening, lacerated by shards of CC Adcock's guitar, in fact there seems to be the ghost of the great Vietnam era C.C.R. all over this record, the howling harmonica and the graveyard train guitars of impending doom quashing any optimism or hope that McMurtry's characters might muster
The reflective title track "Just Us Kids," where the dreams of youth are vaporised in the quicksilver flash of a life passing, is told retrospectively from the view of somebody too old and too tired to do anything except get high: "Meanwhile I got a gram and a real good ride, don'tcha know I hurt way down inside".
Then we arrive at "God Bless America," over the sledge hammer riff McMurtry intones a visceral dissection of corporate greed, and how it fires the rapacious foreign policy of the land of the free, fingering the utter futility in the strategy of the empire that will eat itself: "Take us to the land of milk and honey, sing and dance all night long, what you gonna do with all that money, what you gonna do when the moneys all gone?"
The screw is tightened with "Cheney's Toy," which sees the war as embodying this quote "When old men barter young men for pride and profit, the resulting transaction is called war" while guitars brood and growl as McMurtry's sardonic deadpan delivery tells it like it is.
"Freeway View" brings the tumbling virtuosity of Ian Mclagans piano to the fore front, a roadhouse rocker that lightens thing up before the three key songs that lie at the heart of this record take us back to the isolated, the dislocated, the injured and the excluded that inhabit these songs as emblems of a country that's hung itself at half- mast waiting for a wind of change.
The mournful trumpet and skittering drums set the tone of the "Hurricane Party," the protagonist symbolic of the abandonment that is inescapable when "There is no one to talk to when the lines go down" the resignation summed up by a life where "the first cigarette is as good as it gets".
"Ruby and Carlos" sees McMurtry at his lyrical peak, delivering storytelling that mixes a cinematic narrative and temporal dimensions worthy of "Blood on the Tracks" era Dylan with snatches of conversation "wasn't he barely half her age, that just how they do it these days" against a backdrop of Gulf War Syndrome, equine swamp fever, and economic desperation which result in a tortured, diseased relationship. Carlos has "Lately been staying high, ill all winter and he don't know why'. Accompanied by a groaning cello and an acoustic guitar that could have come of a Nick Drake album till the chorus arrives and breaks your heart: "Holding back the flood just don't do no good, you can't unclench your teeth to howl the way you should, So you curl your lips around the taste of tears and the hollow sound, that no one owns but you". Has there ever been a better exposition of anguish on a rock n roll record?
If "Ruby and Carlos" show McMurtry's story telling abilities, then Fireline Road highlight his ability to write from a woman's point of view, not for the first time, as "Rachael's Song" speaks for the lone parent trying to cope with a troublesome son and the "Lights of Cheyenne" describes the life of an abused wife. I'm not sure how many hairy-assed Texan's choose this view point when songwriting, but I am sure none do it with the skill and conviction of McMurtry, Alice Walker the narrator of "Fireline Row" tells of incest, crank and abject misery in a cinder block cell. It's the empathy McMurtry brings to this misery that reinforces its impact " They've taken her babies and they won't give em back, I know she loves them and god knows she's tried, but when you're that far down you're gonna get high, its like eating or breathing to the rest of us, she can't even feel bad without the stuff"
After all the claustrophobic sadness McMurtry pulls the camera back to detail local corruption in "The Governor," a tale of a murderous cigarette boat and the death of two fisherman, where money buys justice. The camera pulls completely back for the pointed history lesson that is "The Ruins of the Realm" as we get reminded how all tyrannical empires eventually crumble and fall, the chiming descending guitar chords and rolling banjo belie the poisonous parallels that are drawn with the current administration ("a fool and a madman at the helm" ) to the Roman Empire, the days of the Raj, the Confederate South, the fall of Saigon, the Third Reich. Their religious hypocrisy highlighted by "We got the ten commandments on the state house steps, thou shalt not steal, thou shalt not kill, dancing in the ruins of our own free will" is a telling indictment.
The final song, "You'd Have Thought" is a lilting reflective coda closes the album, an album that opens up the America that the constantly touring McMurtry sees as: riven by poverty, ignorance, intolerance, fear and greed. He populates his songs with characters that give a revealing insight into contemporary America. He may have called it Just Us Kids, but for this reviewer, all I see when listening to this powerful dynamic record is the Edvard Munch painting 'The Scream' so go buy this magnificent record, embrace The Scream.Powered by Sidelines