The buzz surrounding James McMurtry’s latest record, “Childish Things,” is all about one track: the seven minute long epic protest song “We Can’t Make It Here.” It’s a great song, no doubt, one that’s prodded political bloggers to write music reviews, sparked music reviewers to write up comparisons to more mainstream “patriotic” fare and has even been called “the best protest song since Bob Dylan’s Masters of War” by no less a cultural icon than Stephen King.
The fact that he has never really been a political songwriter probably contributes to all the fuss. If Steve Earle had written “Can’t Make It Here,” it may have passed without much notice, but McMurtry has built a reputation for writing thoughtful lyrics that focus on plain old humans and human issues. True to form, “Can’t Make It Here” catalogues the current political atmosphere’s human toll in true McMurtry fashion.
But all the hubris and hand wringing overlooks the fact that “Childish Things,” on the whole, is James McMurtry at the top of his game.
The album kicks off with “See The Elephant,” a song that captures the spirit of child-like wonder and comes pretty close to being a hooky pop song with the piano, fiddle, and muted brass arrangement.
The title cut recalls John Prine and displays some deft writing, both musically and lyrically. He scores big with the albums two covers as well.
For those who find his voice too droning, the duet with Joe Ely provides some nice contrast on an upbeat, rollicking version of the old bluegrass standard “Slewfoot.” And aside from “Can’t Make It Here,” the album’s other real highlight is a pull-out-the-stops, rocking send-up of Peter Case’s “The Old Part of Town”. He takes the bouncy, acoustic tune and cranks up the beat, adds some tough guitar licks, and the result is as good as anything on his previous studio release, “Saint Mary of the Woods.”
Other songs of note are “Memorial Day,” “Six Year Drought,” and the excellent closer, “Holiday,” which features my favorite succinct line from the album: “ . . . some hat’s on the radio, singing his song . . .”
Subtle and derisive, without being too snarky, he reduces the current state of pop country music to its essence: some hat on the radio.
McMurtry is no hat act. He takes the stage in a rumpled t-shirt and well worn jeans and plays with a snarling intensity that keeps the audience hanging on the words.
His touring band, The Heartless Bastards, are a basic three piece, with Ronnie Johnson on bass and Darren Hess on drums; on “Childish Things,” they fill in the gaps with an array of instrumentation without ever distracting from the real feature, the songs themselves.
Like a lot of great singer-songwriters, James McMurtry’s monochromatic voice has always been an acquired taste. Think Lou Reed or Warren Zevon without the vocal range. Admittedly some of his earlier work could be pretty monotonous and lyrically clumsy, but, with recent fare, he’s displayed keener melodic sensibility and his guitar work is noticeably improved.
His best previous record, "St. Mary’s of the Woods," is a pretty tough act to follow. If he hasn’t equaled it with “Childish Things, then he’s come pretty damn close. At the same time, he’s added his name to the distinguished roster of pop music dissidents with style.