First Appeared at The Music Box, May 2002, Volume 9, #5
Written by John Metzger
Some artists can’t string together enough songs to make a cohesive album. Others, like Steve Earle, have more songs than they know what to do with. That explains Sidetracks, a superb collection of movie soundtrack contributions, alternate takes, and choice cover selections. While the disc doesn’t function quite as gracefully as some of his more proper albums — take Transcendental Blues, The Mountain, or El Corazón, for example — it does hold up surprisingly well for what most artists would consider their "B-sides."
And that’s just it. These aren’t "B-sides." These are great songs (or great versions of great songs), performed with all the perfectly nuanced detail that Earle lends to all of his recordings. Here’s a case in point: Earle is not one to back away from a political issue and his linking of Time Will Come Today with Ellis Unit One might seem incidental on the surface. But the death penalty is, rightfully, a hot issue with Earle and that happens to be the subject of the latter song. It’s predecessor includes snippets of speech from Abbie Hoffman pointing out the inadequacies of the American justice system. Just as Time Will Come Today fades out, Hoffman can be heard urging his followers to question authority, and that’s when the soft, sad acoustic strum of Ellis Unit One kicks in. And what a gem this is too, reproduced in its original demo format with the Fairfield Four adding their voices to Earle’s, giving the song a startlingly haunted, world-weary gospel ambience. Talk about a powerful statement.
And this doesn’t even begin to scratch the surface of the nuggets contained on Sidetracks. Earle unleashes a torrential assault on Nirvana’s Breed, settles into a laid-back, folksy groove on Little Feat’s Willin’, and launches into upbeat country-pop on Some Dreams. He teams with Tim O’Brien, Darrell Scott, Dennis Crouch, and Casey Driessen for an exquisite bluegrass cover of Gram Parsons’ My Uncle, breezes through his own Gaelic original Dominick Street with Sharon Shannon and The Woodchoppers in tow, and serves up the most beautiful of ballads on Me and the Eagle. Sidetracks certainly has something for everyone, and it proves that for the truly talented, there really are no "B-sides." ½
Sidetracks 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 © 2002 The Music Box