New label, new city: enter the Freewheelin' Steve Earle

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Steve Earle – Washington Square Serenade
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Like [b]Tom Russell[/b] and [b]Dave Alvin[/b], [b]Earle[/b] is a songwriter who sharpens with age. Recent albums “Jerusalem” (2002) and 2004’s “The Revolution Starts…Now” found him politically charged, tilting at Bush & Co. with undisguised revulsion. It was reflected in the music too, which was gruff, tetchy, raw.

Now, a move to [b]New York[/b] ([b]Greenwich Village[/b] to be specific) has given [b]Earle[/b] fresh impetus. Produced by [b]Dust Brother John King[/b] at [b]Electric Lady Studios[/b], “Washington Square Serenade” feels far more personal. Layering acoustic and electric guitars over vaguely hip-hop beats, much of it sounds like [b]Earle[/b] taking stock of his new home and nodding his approval. [b]New York[/b], he admits, was where he was always headed. [b]Nashville[/b] just happened to get in the way.

“Tennessee Blues” directly addresses his decision to quit [b]Nashville[/b] two years ago. Set to bright guitar and skeletal beats, [b]Earle[/b] growls [i]”Sunset in my mirror / Pedal on the floor / Bound for New York City / And I won’t be back no more”[/i]. And why would you, when you’re nestled in a garden apartment on the street depicted on the sleeve of “The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan”?

Elsewhere, there’s a new thrust to most of the other songs too. “Satellite Radio”, bizarrely enough, begins like [b]Portishead[/b], then opens out into an improbable kind of folk rap that’s one of the best moments here. And with traditional Brazilian rhythms courtesy of [b]Forro In The Dark[/b], “City Of Immigrants” finds [b]Earle[/b] plugging in to a new strain of urban tropicalia.
Of course, this is hardly wholesale reinvention. Wife [b]Alison Moorer[/b] duets on “Days Aren’t Long Enough”, while the country boy shines through on the banjo-heavy “Oxycontin Blues” and an old-timey “Jericho Road”. It’s all invigorating, wonderful stuff. Wherever he goes, [b]Earle[/b] finds a rich seam of song to mine.

[b]ROB HUGHES[/b]