Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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Folk Off!

****1/2

TODD SNIDER
The Devil You Know
New Door/UME

Top wiseass salutes hookers and ex-cons

At 39, Austin-schooled, Nashville-based Todd Snider has been barnstorming the Southern guitar-bard circuit for nearly 20 years. Say he's a tough-'n'-tender singer-songwriter who convinces the roadhouse crowd he's a hang-loose rogue. Either way he's smarter and funnier than his main claim to fame, 1994's "Talking Seattle Grunge Rock Blues," a Woody Guthrie-styled novelty about an alternative band whose gimmick is refusing to play.

Snider broke through in 2004 with East Nashville Skyline, and The Devil You Know is at least as terrific. John Prine and Steve Earle are reference points, but Snider's got his own just-folks shtick--he's at once more critical of his chosen losers and more celebratory. "There's a war going on that the poor can't win," the title song shouts, and whether band-backed or solo acoustic, the feckless drawl Snider has nurtured is perfect for detailing and emodying "a different kind of American dream." A drifter connects with a hooker he dated in high school; an ex-con warns his new boss to watch his mouth if he wants his drywall hung; and a tweaking stickup man talks his buddies into doing it again: "Did we get arrested? No we didn not/We didn't shoot anyone, we didn't get shot."

Snider even utilizes the same drawl and logic to throw a chill into a different kind of war report. "You Got Away With It" begins by recalling a prank in which three drunken frat brothers beat up a crybaby with zero consequences: "Aside from that one hippie, we never really hurt anyone/Well, there's that other thing that I won't even say." Only a Camp David reference makes clear which Yale chum the narrator is addressing. If only it were as clear just what "new thing" he expects the chum to get away with next.

Blender, Aug. 2006