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Ten Years Later: Transcendental Blues

February 9, 2010

Transcendental Blues
Steve Earle
June 6, 2000

Rating: 8.5/10

In 2000 I was far more interested in Weezer than weathered folk superstar Steve Earle, though my most pressing concerns were braces and math homework. Back then I felt like the coolest kid in school because I had discovered their self titled “Blue Album,” I was forever lost in their garage or the world of Jonas.

My recent discovery of the music of Steve Earle has me experiencing that same kind of satisfaction. In his music I feel that I have found the antidote to the glamorized, high-sheen cookie-cutter music that passes for country music these days.

Some of my first musical memories involve listening to country music in the car with my mom or dancing to country music with my grandma. My first concert was a Garth Brooks concert and my favorite song from my childhood was “Chattahoochee” by Alan Jackson. Needless to say, country music has shaped my personal musical tastes a great deal, however has been conspicuously absent until recently.

Over the years I have lost my taste for country, ranging from complete disgust in my preteen years to a Renaissance of sorts in discovering the alt-country styles of my favorite bands Wilco, Limbeck and Ryan Adams (and anything he does) during high school. More recently the sweet music made by Justin Townes Earle have been gracing the speakers in my room and setting hooks in my heart.

Only by finding the younger Earle was I compelled to seek out the elder, which is quite an interesting voyage, one that I have found to be quite fruitful.

Transcendental Blues is rated on MetaCritic as the sixth best album of the year 2000, and it doesn’t take long to understand why. Opening with a flourish of accordion music and shortly plucking into beautiful grassroots-experimental-blues-garage rock-country there is an aura of dissatisfaction with the art (or lack thereof) in country music immediately available. The title track by itself is a beautiful testament to what Earle is trying to accomplish on this album, and it is as successful as it is poignant.

Throughout the album Earle never settles down or loses the plot on his transcendental journey across the myriad of musical genres. The notions of orchestration and simplification are embraced wholly on this album; it seems that Earle is never bothered with the notion of adding an instrument, yet knows when enough is enough.

The best instrument he uses, however, is his voice. Raspier than alt-country stalwart Jeff Tweedy but gentler than gypsy-jazz icon Tom Waits, Earle’s voice is the perfect companion to his songs. It conveys the emotion, of which there is plenty, with precision but never sounds forced or unnatural.

“Boy Who Never Cried” is a perfect example of Earle’s genius songwriting ability. Keeping his verses plain and gentle while adding a string section for choruses and bridges to enhance the spirituality of the lyrics.

The transcendental journey on this album takes the listener all over the place, from the southern charm of ‘Steve’s Last Ramble,” to the British Isles with the title track, which reminds of The Beatles seminal classic Rubber Soul.

Earle lingers on those British Isles with “Galway Girl,”the semi-autobiographical story of his meeting with a black-haired, blue-eyed girl in Galway, Ireland. The song, which features Irish musician Sharon Shannon, has a beautiful Celtic bluegrass combination that is astounding. The best part of the song, in my opinion, is that the music sounds so wide open and airy, as if it were recorded live, yet Earle’s voice sounds so close and immediate.

Overall this album feels like the perfect launching point for any Earle newcomers, like myself. I don’t know where to go from here, but I remember how my journey from Weezer to Pinkerton led me to more artists and bigger, grander things. I’m certain Earle can do the same thing for me.

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