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Joe Ely 

Streets of Sin

Wednesday, Aug 20 2003
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Anyone interested in the genesis of the so-called altcountry or Americana genres ought to investigate this Joe Ely fellow. In 1977, just as country music's "outlaw movement" was reaching its peak, Ely emerged from Texas with his lean melding of introspective, literate songwriting, Southwestern/cowboy mythology, stripped-down honky-tonk, rock 'n' roll, and other indigenous Texas sounds, sung in a plain-spoken, conversational voice. In the years since, Ely's music has undergone many changes, from progressive country to blues-charged roadhouse rock to flamenco-influenced western balladry and back again. Streets of Sin, his first studio album in five years, is a nicely realized synthesis of those varied musical threads, plus a new wrinkle or two.

The traveling song "95 South" is a tasty slab of crackling, boom-chicka-boom rockabilly, and the loping "Wind Gonna Blow You Away" evokes the spectrum of Texas Gulf Coast sounds by mixing razor-sharp acoustic country-blues guitar with jaunty Tex-Mex/conjunto accordion. "Carnival Bum" is the most ambitious track here, alternating a stark, spoken narrative -- accompanied by some atypical (for Ely) atmospherics that'd sound more at home on a Beth Orton or Steely Dan recording -- with plaintive harmonica-laden folk rock. The high point, though, is the title track, a regal, bluesy lament that smolders like the Rolling Stones' best post-1971 ballads (think "Waiting on a Friend" or "Almost Hear You Sigh"). While not Ely's very best work -- the lyrics to "I Gotta Find Ol' Joe" and "Fightin' for My Life" are painfully awash in macho clichés -- Streets of Sin will please the faithful and will hopefully entice some neophytes into investigating the oeuvre of one of altcountry's godfathers.

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Mark Keresman

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