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Steve Earle

The Low Highway – 2013 (New West)

Reviewed by Michael Verity

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CDs by Steve Earle

If you're a forever smitten fan of Steve Earle who's always looking forward to his next record, you'll likely be satisfied with "The Low Highway." It's a 12-song collection of strong songs, all stamped with his signature sound.

The title cut is a beautiful, world-weary ballad that narrates a trip along the highways and byways of America. Over a gently rocking beat, Earle crosses paths with empty houses, hungry people and broken factories, a bleak picture that belies a beautiful melody. The closing cut, Remember Me, is similarly deceiving. It's a down tempo back porch ballad that sounds sweet but, in typical fashion, offers words that cut straight to the heart of the human condition.

In between, Earle dances to a number of different drummers. There's a swinging New Orleans infused two-step (That All You Got?), a funky little piano driven number (Pocket Full Of Rain), a traditional banjo breakdown (Warren Hellman's Banjo) and an updated take on the Copperhead Road theme, this time with meth playing the bad guy role (Calico County).

So, if this album is a nice variety of strongly-written cuts, how could it be a disappointment to anyone other than rabid fan? Because strong songs don't always make a strong record and, after listening to the album all the way through, one's left with a feeling like something's missing. What's missing is easy: "The Low Highway" lacks the audacity of the "Copperhead Road," the four-gear diesel drive of "Transcendental Blues" or the sing-a-long joy that flowed through "I Feel Alright." It's good stuff, but it's not great stuff.

Best advice? Buy some individual cuts (The Low Highway and That's All You Got? and maybe Love's Gonna Blow My Way) and spend the rest of your listening time reacquainting yourself with his old stuff.