Just Us Kids
John Metzger's #13 album for 2008
First Appeared in The Music Box, May 2008, Volume 15, #5
Written by John Metzger
Thu May 8, 2008, 06:30 AM CDT
A clever and frequently sarcastic wordsmith, James McMurtry is not known for hiding his opinions or pulling his punches. Even so, his latest effort Just Us Kids is surprisingly confrontational, and it likely is his most pointed and barbed effort to date. Like a pit bull, he latches onto the modern-day issues that are plaguing middle America — joblessness, shattered dreams, and a presidential administration that has sold the country in bits and pieces to the highest corporate bidders — and applying his relentless, Texas-bred tenacity, McMurtry searches for a system of values that all but has faded into the ether. In a sense, Just Us Kids — like its predecessor Childish Things — is a love letter to the nation, though it also comes with the belief that the only method for saving his homeland is to tear it apart and expose its seedy underbelly to the light.
Marrying the gritty realism of Lou Reed’s New York to Mark Knopfler’s working-class character sketches, McMurtry uses Just Us Kids to paint cinematic portraits of people and places. Most important, though, he bolsters his angry arguments by relaying them through the eyes of those who unwittingly have found themselves trapped by the madness. McMurtry assaults the oil industry in God Bless America (pat mAcdonald must die), and he chides the President for being nothing more than a pawn (Cheney’s Toy). Yet, it becomes something greater than simple political posturing when, for example, he uses a fallen soldier on the latter track to pay tribute to those who have died or been wounded in vain. Elsewhere, he comments upon the destruction of New Orleans by telling his tale from the perspective of someone who stayed behind only to watch as water filled the streets; Ruby and Carlos examines a relationship that has collapsed, though even here, global politics plays a role; and the title track is a reflection on how grand ambitions are consumed by the trials and tribulations of a day-to-day existence.
While McMurtry’s lyrics always have been sharp, his music has never sounded better. With the help of Jon Dee Graham, Timbuk 3's Pat MacDonald, and the Faces’ Ian McLagan, McMurtry tucks his tales inside arrangements that burn with the same seething intensity as his poetic observations. Carefully sculpting an accompanying soundtrack that perfectly shades and colors his words, he revels in the intricate details of his stories, revealing them little by little, much like a novelist. The tension builds and dissipates in a tangle of blazing guitars, winding harmonicas, and mournful trumpets, and the devastation within his scenes is underscored with empathy and understanding. For the record, there’s really nothing about Just Us Kids that McMurtry hasn’t attempted before. Rarely, however, has he sounded this focused for an entire album. It makes all the difference in the world. From start to finish, Just Us Kids is a potent, election-year diatribe that grapples with the issues by examining the lives of the very people they affect.
Of Further Interest...
Just Us Kids is available from Barnes & Noble.
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1 Star: Pitiful
2 Stars: Listenable
3 Stars: Respectable
4 Stars: Excellent
5 Stars: Can't Live Without It!!
Copyright © 2008 The Music Box