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Ray Wylie Hubbard

Dangerous Spirits – 1997 (Rounder)

Reviewed by Brian Steinberg

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CDs by Ray Wylie Hubbard

Ray Wylie Hubbard's new disc offers a walk into the mystic, with songs about redemption and rebuilding a life torn by violence and chaos. At least, that's how the singer sounds in songs like the title cut and "The Last Younger Son.," with talk like "I stand as a witness to the things I have done/I have caused sorrow yet I too have been pained." Such stuff tends to get one down, and the vague, philosophical lyrics don't help. But Hubbard gets a great boost from a crack band throughout, with sterling licks from guitar greats Terry Ware and Lloyd Maines. Backing vocals from Sara Hickman and Jimmy LaFave help the singer transcend his own voice's limitations.

When Hubbard writes a song with more concrete descriptions and subjects, however, he nails it. Tunes like "Resurrection," "If Heaven Is Not A Place To Go," and "Without Love (We're Just Wasting Time)" offer crack guitar work, sprightly arrangements, and Hubbard's world-weary ruminations on keeping new love and the interior ramblings of a troubled man's mind. They work, perhaps, because they bring up the stuff that tears someone deep inside.

The album's high point comes at the end with "The Ballad Of The Crimson Kings," a rallying cry for those singer-songwriters like Townes Van Zandt, Steve Earle and Lucinda Williams (who provides guest vocals) driven by their separate muses to create songs of life lived close to the bone. "There are those condemned by the gods to write," Hubbard sings. "They sparkle and fade away." For that single effort alone, "Dangerous Spirits" warrants several listens.