Joe Ely

Streets of Sin (Rounder)

Making terrific music is its own reward. In a way, though, it's also the gift that keeps on taking. Excellence creates expectations of greatness every time out, and no one this side of the river Styx (not to mention the band Styx) can pull that off. As a result, good albums by artists capable of more can seem like disappointments simply because they fall short of genius -- and that ain't fair.

Which brings us to Streets of Sin. By any objective standard, the disc is a solid, intelligent piece of work brimming with Texas wisdom and guilt-free twang. "Fightin' for My Life," penned by Flatlanders collaborator Butch Hancock, sports striking couplets such as "I used to read the Bible and Paradise Lost/Now it looks like everybody's been gettin' double-crossed," and Ely sings them with the steely authenticity he's spent several decades honing. Elsewhere, he demonstrates his narrative skills via "Flood on Our Hands," a deliberately paced saga with Faulknerian echoes, and the title cut, a heartfelt slab of electric folk in which the protagonist is certain he can make it back home by closing time as long as he can "hitch a ride on a DC-9."

So what's the rub? For one thing, a DC-9 is the same type of plane feted in "Dallas," a Jimmie Dale Gilmore composition that Ely delivers so indelibly on Musta Notta Gotta Lotta, a 1981 long-player that's among his finest recordings; 1977's Joe Ely, 1978's Honky Tonk Masquerade and 1980's Live Shots are arguably even better.

And so it goes throughout Sin: The CD sports some fairly rote turns ("Run Little Pony," "Carnival Bum"), but even the impressive tracks, like "Twisty River Bridge," bring to mind earlier, meatier, more deeply satisfying offerings.

For those who haven't committed Ely's oeuvre to memory (and judging by his record sales, he's long been criminally underappreciated), such issues are completely superfluous. A person fortunate to be starting at square one will probably like the platter just the way it is, completely unaware that it represents mid-level Joe rather than a high-water mark. Ah, blissful ignorance.

 
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