Steve Earle,
Transcendental Blues
(Artemis Records, 2000)

What an album! Eclectic only begins to describe it -- Transcendental Blues is like a one-CD version of many of my favorite musical styles. All are original songs by Steve Earle, and the breadth is amazing. The fifteen songs range from alternative rock all the way to Celtic, with stops at rocking blues, traditional country, bluegrass, and folk singer-songwriter. I hadn't encountered Earle before, and can see I've been missing a lot of great music.

My favorite song is the Celtic-inspired "The Galway Girl," a lively and danceable piece that reminded me of the Oysterband (a house favorite around here). It points to the musical connections between bluegrass and Celtic music. In fact, that's one of the strengths of this whole album -- making connections between musical styles in ways that one often doesn't notice. This is a good example; Celtic and bluegrass have a lot in common, and then the continuum moves over to traditional country -- and loses many people somewhere along the way. I like to see historical connections made, and new ones pointed out, and so expand my appreciation of different styles.

I really love the bluegrass songs, too. "Steve's Last Ramble" has some great accordion and a classic bluegrass/country theme -- the rambling man who wants to come home. "Until the Day I Die" is so faithful to the old time bluegrass tradition that I almost thought I'd heard it before -- maybe on "A Prairie Home Companion" -- until I saw that it was an original song by Earle and not a traditional at all. It's perfect -- vocals, instruments, everything.

And then the album shifts from the bluegrass "Until the Day I Die" into "All Of My Life," which reminds me a lot of Tom Petty, or maybe the Violent Femmes (especially the bass work, although the Femmes' is more complex). "Everyone's In Love With You" has a similar flavor, with even better bass and an overall alternative rock theme.

Several of the rock songs are reminiscent of Petty, such as "Wherever I Go," "I Don't Want To Lose You Yet," "Transcendental Blues" (with perhaps a dab of Dylan), and particularly "Another Town" and the next song "I Can Wait." These are as lyrically interesting as the best of Petty's songs.

"When I Fall" is an interesting blend of old-style country vocals with a definite rock accompaniment. The female vocalist's voice was a bit irritating to me at first, but it fits the song and style well. The lyrics and melody are beautiful, and I'd love to hear a version with more melodic vocals, and maybe even an acoustic backup.

"Lonelier Than This" is a beautiful, sad folk song that has one of the most fascinating accompaniments on the album (which is saying a lot), with intricate finger-picking, heavy bass and a martial snare drum percussion! Remarkable -- and far more effective than you're likely to believe from this description! "Halo 'Round the Moon" is country-flavored folk, or maybe folk-flavored country, about lost love. "Over Yonder" is another folk piece, about death and loss.

The piece I like the least is the fable "The Boy Who Never Cried." It has the Dylan/Petty flavor and was nice enough at first; it has some interesting Middle Eastern touches to the accompaniment, too. With repetition, though, I found the fairly straightforward and unsubtle story didn't hold my interest, and since the accompaniment focuses one's attention so thoroughly on the lyrics, it was hard to just glide over it.

I hope I'm not giving the impression that the whole album is derivative. It's not, at all. I mention other artists to try to give an illustration of the wide range and enormous skill in singing, songwriting and arranging Earle demonstrates here.

My copy of Transcendental Blues is a promotional CD and lacks liner notes. I may buy the released version, in the hopes that it will include song lyrics and information about the instruments and musicians on the various songs. I really regret that I can't comment here on some of the many skillful performances.

Transcendental Blues is, along with Fourteen Days by Laura Love, one of the very best albums I've heard this year. I recommend it unreservedly, particularly to people who like many kinds of music. And I'll definitely be buying more of Steve Earle's work!

[ by Amanda Fisher ]

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