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Dwight Yoakam

Population Me – 2003 (Electrodisc/Audium/Koch)

Reviewed by Eli Messinger

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CDs by Dwight Yoakam

Clocking in at a scant 32 minutes, Dwight Yoakam's label debut (he's started his own imprint after 17 years at WB/Reprise) is a surprisingly complex album. On the surface, it's a tour de force return to the honky-tonk roots that made him a star on the charts (and more recently, Hollywood Boulevard). But with co-producer Pete Anderson in tow, Yoakam has once again layered unusual musical and lyrical elements in subtle, masterful ways.

Yoakam demonstrates that it's not only his songwriting that's in good shape - his ears are wide open for great material. The album's lead, and original title track, "The Late Great Golden State," penned by L.A.-transplant Mike Stinson, gallops along on layered images of dustbowl migration, Yoakam's personal westward journey and California's recent troubled fortunes. Burt Bacharach and Hal David's "Trains and Boats and Planes" similarly plays on multiple levels, at once a compelling banjo-and-fiddle remake of Dionne Warwick's hit and a modern wartime lament ("And if my prayers can cross the sea/The trains and the boats and planes/Will bring you back, back to me"). The album's first single, Gregg Lee Henry's guitar-and-strings "The Back of Your Hand," is an atmospheric ballad resonating in Yoakam's bottomless well of emotion.

In addition to several new honky tonk gems, including the wonderfully self-pitying "I'd Avoid Me Too," Yoakam's originals include the title track's despondent mixture of banjo, marching drum and muted trumpet solo, and the Willie Nelson duet, "If Teardrops Were Diamonds."

Yoakam sounds refreshed and energized throughout, and though there's no giant artistic leap forward, the complex, innovative sound he and Anderson have developed certainly merits repeated exploration.