Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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James McMurtry

  • Too Long in the Wasteland [Columbia, 1989] B+
  • Live in Aught-Three [Compadre, 2004] A-
  • Childish Things [Compadre, 2005] A-
  • Just Us Kids [Lightning Rod, 2008] A-
  • Live in Europe [Lightning Rod, 2009] Choice Cuts
  • Complicated Game [Complicated Game, 2015] A

Consumer Guide Reviews:

Too Long in the Wasteland [Columbia, 1989]
He's gonna be a prestige item, just you wait--quality singer-songwriter from the heartland-wasteland. He's been there, he's still there, has his own RFD box on the back cover lest you doubt his authenticity. Also an eye for detail, perhaps from his novelist dad, and John Mellencamp showing him around the studio. I enjoy his sketches, their weary women especially. But like so many singer-songwriters and so many local-colorists, he tends to a soft fatalism, especially when he tries a big statement: the metametaphorical "Painting by Numbers," or "I'm Not From Here," which notes that we've been picking up and leaving "since the stone age." No way a simple quality singer-songwriter can change that, now is there? B+

Live in Aught-Three [Compadre, 2004]
Last time I saw him he was switching off on six guitars, none of which he played with much verve--it was more like they were place holders, delaying tactics, a way through a 90-minute set, proof he wasn't just a writer. But though he does plod here, he also showcases his best early tunes, as a plodder had better. These are more likely attached to sardonically Dylanesque tales of personal inadequacy than to the sociopolitical extended metaphors and local-color narratives that came to the fore as of "We Can't Make It Here." But spurred by a Chuck Berry riff, it's the nine-minute meth-industry saga "Choctaw Bingo" that puts the set in gear, with "60 Acres," "Out Here in the Middle," and "Levelland" riding the same highway. That last one is dedicated to Max Crawford, identified as a member of the American Workers Party: "Max was a communist, so he didn't fit in too good in Floydada." James is a guy who prides himself on getting around. A-

Childish Things [Compadre, 2005]
Although Larry's boy has been arranging strong words into stolid strophes since 1989, it took four years of King George II to get a political song out of him. "We Can't Make It Here," now Bernie Sanders's 2006 campaign theme, is still a hell of a downloadable loss leader at jamesmcmurtry.com, where the slogan is: "We tour so we can make albums. We make albums so we can tour." No other track quite matches its simmering rage, but a few come close, including two that mix carnage on America's holiday highways and carnage in America's holy wars. In the past, McMurtry's square-set solemnity has buried him in the Americana section. This time it makes him sound like a prophet. A-

Just Us Kids [Lightning Rod, 2008]
The two fierce anti-Bush songs are rhetorical in a way the career-changing "We Can't Make It Here" wasn't: "Cheney's Toy," for the universal soldier, and "Ruins of the Realm," which ends up dancing in the ruins of the German Reich itself. Narrative he reserves for the yarns and portraits he's been hawking for two decades. The most detailed chronicles the love that slips away between a young musician and an older horsewoman. But the meth addict who loses her kids, the unsolved speedboat accident, the one-night stand that leaves the singer "lookin' through the hole in the bottom of my heart"? All of them bite and hold, in part because the music is fierce. Live, McMurtry can still be way too strophic and trad. But he's never made an album so loud or hard. Righteous rage can do that to a person. Like I said, career-changing. A-

Live in Europe [Lightning Rod, 2009]
"Bayou Tortue" Choice Cuts

Complicated Game [Complicated Game, 2015]
McMurtry has the musical limitations you'd expect of a singer-songwriter whose loud declaratives pound away over a beat designed for a guy who "can't dance a lick." But this time you should definitely live with them--of the dozen songs on his first album since 2008, the two that are less than compelling come close, and half are superb. The struggling-class portraiture this Texan makes his specialty relocates to South Dakota, Virginia, Florida, and comfier Long Island, whence an Oklahoman salaryman reports: "When the 5:30 rush hits the Cross Island Parkway/It's not for the squeamish or the gentle of heart." One of the four love songs painfully rekindles an old flame, while the rest address a single fine piece of work: a handy bartender who writes better prose than the writer she loves and who, as per an agreement the writer never thought would go into effect, makes do with a Harley-riding parking lot attendant while he's away on tour. Two others reflect on the singer's existential inadequacies, including is a finale called "Cutter" I find less than compelling only when I can't feel the knife focusing the pain in one spot so I can get to sleep. A

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