Washington Square Serenade


(New West )

Alt-country hero Steve Earle tried with his summer of 2004 release The Revolution Starts ... Now to dissuade listeners from re-electing Bush. Three years later, Dubya is still in the White House, and we're still fighting his poorly planned, pretty much unwinnable war in Iraq. But on Earle's new album, Washington Square Serenade, the hardcore troubadour no longer sounds like he's at a political rally. And that's a good thing. Because last go-round, Earle's zeal for bringing down the administration allowed for the inclusion of songs like "Condi, Condi," his juvenile, unfunny, faux valentine to Condoleezza Rice.

Washington Square Serenade has several weak spots, but in eschewing obvious political statements, Earle turns in one of his overall best records in years.

John King of The Dust Brothers (Beck, The Rolling Stones, Beastie Boys) produced Washington Square Serenade, but the sound doesn't stray much from Earle's trademark blend of folk and rock augmented with Celtic and bluegrass flourishes.

Washington Square Serenade starts with the simple, sublime folk ditty "Tennessee Blues." The lyric finds Earle saying goodbye to "Guitar Town," the same Nashville he wrote about returning to on the title track of his classic 1986 debut album. But while "Tennessee Blues" simmers with intimate poignancy — Earle relocated from Music City to New York City last year — the album's next two numbers are forced; they ring false. On "Down Here Below," Earle half sings/half speaks a brick of a lyric about the disparity between the haves and have-nots. "Satellite Radio" sounds like a cheap promo for Sirius or XM.

The album regains its footing with the bouncy-yet-touching "City of Immigrants," which features the band Forro in the Dark adding their brand of traditional Brazilian music to the tune. The Pete Seeger ode "Steve's Hammer (For Pete)" paints the protest singer as a saint on high.

"Oxycontin Blues" is where we are reminded of Earle's songwriting genius. Singing over Appalachian banjo, he offers a first-person narrative that puts the listener right next to the modern-day drug addict. It's a bleak but moving tale that shows the absurdity of the American Dream without harping on it. The album closes with Earle's convincing reading of Tom Waits' "Way Down in the Hole," the theme song from the HBO series The Wire. 3.5 stars —Wade Tatangelo



(Righteous Babe)

She has been the spunky, scrappy, at times even playful First Lady of punk/folk for nearly two decades now. Ani DiFranco initially blasted her way into our hearts in 1989 with a strident, self-titled debut album that became a must-own on Northeast campuses. She put the disc out on her own Righteous Babe label, and she's released all of her albums (almost one per year) on that indie imprint. DiFranco arrived on the scene with just a raw voice and a guitar that she often played like a percussion instrument. But over the years, she's expanded her sound to incorporate funk, ska, jazz and experimental soundscapes that defy definition.

DiFranco's that rare artist who controls everything from the recording sessions to the CD packaging, so it should come as no surprise that Canon, her first career retrospective, was hand-picked with the same attention to detail that marks her regular albums.

Split into two discs, Canon offers listeners a chronological overview. All the essentials are here: the live version of "Untouchable Face;" the title track of Little Plastic Castle; "Manhole," the scathing look at immigration from her 2005 release Knuckle Down.

The only disappointment — if you can call it that — is that the collection works primarily as a primer. The only bonuses are "brand-spanking-new studio versions" of four previously released tracks, including "Napoleon" and "Both Hands." A nicer incentive would have been the inclusion of bootleg tracks like DiFranco's superb live rendition of Prince's "When You Were Mine." Or how about her hilarious cover of "Wishin' and Hopin,'" which appears on the soundtrack to My Best Friend's Wedding?

That said, this is an excellent best-of, replete with beautiful packaging and a booklet featuring the lyrics to each track. 4.5 stars —WT

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