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Joe Ely

Twistin' in the Wind – 1998 (MCA)

Reviewed by Bill Sacks

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CDs by Joe Ely

How many Great Southwestern mythopoetic cliches can Joe Ely pack into a single lyric? Too damned many for him to rise above the status of "local colorist," as numerous cuts off his last half-dozen records stand to prove; they collide and clash, sliding in and out of focus before they're allowed to crystalize into more substantial ideas.

For fans of Ely's best work, this can be nothing less than maddeningly frustrating . With every record, he pulls out a tune or two which not only validate his record contract, but recast the traditions which he holds so close to the breast as well. They make his lapses into verbosity seem like more an affront than evidence of laziness. There are a few such here: "I Will Lose My Life," a love plaint as compelling as any he's ever written, is the best thing here by a stretch, and in no small part because it's the lyric least burdened by wolves and full moons and dusty trails and bad men with lightning in their eyes. The title track has its appeal, though it might just work as an epitaph; there are other flashes of skill, always somehow cluttered or diminished by half-realized craft. The sound is another matter entirely. Ely and Jim Wilson have produced a huge sound here, with the sort of expansiveness to the guitars which Jimmie Dale Gilmore sought for his own last record.

Ely also knows how to surround himself with sharp players - there isn't one note which isn't played with expertise, and some of it is so full of fire that it dwarfs the singer. Jesse Taylor, Mitch Watkins, the ubiquitous and gigantically talented Lloyd Maines, a rhythm section as sharp as any Ely has ever worked with - offer contributions that outmode the songs more than half the time. One hopes that they all find their way onto the truly great record we might hope Ely will make again some day.