What I’m Listening to Today

To make OffBeat‘s “Pop Life” more of a dialogue, I’ve temporarily moved it to this site. It’s also easier to write more regularly and spontaneously, more accurately reflecting how and when I think about music and other stuff. Right now the site is a work in progress, and I’ll flesh it out over the course of the next few weeks. Consider this “Under Construction.”

I’ve been living with folkie James McMurtry’s Just Us Kids (Lightning Rod) for the last few weeks deciding how I feel about it. His previous album Childish Things had one great track, “We Can’t Make it Here,” which spelled out these hard times with a ruthlessly precise deadpan. I kept waiting for the song that hit me like that, and I’m still waiting. But it’s unfair to ask McMurtry to deliver one song as good as his best song on every album.

McMurtry’s people are Springsteen’s people, only southern, and his are suffering just like Bruce’s, only without the E Street Band draping eachoes of girl group records to romanticize their struggles. Depicting their hard lives is a form of protest music for McMurtry, which leaves the songs flinty, ornamentless and devastatingly to the point. He sympathizes with people, but not so much that he’ll candy coat a thing, not even on “Cheney’s Toy,” which portrays today’s young soldier as a pawn.

It didn’t take me nearly as long to decide about Kathleen Edwards’ Asking for Flowers (Zoe/Rounder). Anyone who can work hockey player Marty McSorley into a chorus has admirable songwriting chops. The mystery on the album is really why roots rock fans haven’t rallied around Edwards like they have around Lucinda Williams. Is she paying the price for her Canadian-ness? For living in a civilized country with a healthy sense of reserve? For music that’s less showily artful? Her songs map out the emotional landscape of the characters that inhabit her songs in music that offer surprises. In the kiss-off “The Cheapest Key,” the driving guitars give way to piano trills as she sings, “Don’t get me wrong / here comes my softer side,” followed immediately by the resurgent guitars. “And there it goes.” And you root for her, just as you do for Williams. There’s so much heartbreak and so many bad choices, but her songs resist the urge to bog down in bummerdom. The title cut is typical; when things get dark, they also get more lovely and insightful here.

I’ve held off on writing about Ray Davies’ Working Man’s Cafe (New West/Animal) because like most artists with 20 or so albums under their belts, it’s hard to imagine what he’d have to say today that we haven’t heard and/or need to hear. As you might expect, there’s nothing necessary here; if you’re listening to this, you’re doing so because you’re interested in Davies and want to know about what he’s doing now.

Fortunately, the album’s pretty solid. The songs are often wry, but his tongue isn’t in his cheek. Davies measures out his hooks judiciously, making sure each song has just enough to give it life, but nothing is showy. If anything, being currently marginalized by his icon status suits him. He doesn’t seem interested in asserting his continued relevance, and is free to make the small songs he feels like making. He’s not a working class guy anymore, but he knows it and is sympathetic.