Album Review

James McMurtry - Saint Mary Of The Woods

James McMurtry - Saint Mary Of The Woods

James McMurtry has made his name -- and the part he inherited hasn't hurt him -- as a wordsmith, a sketcher of characters and teller of stories. The music to which these have been set hasn't generated much comment over the course of his first five albums, but with Saint Mary Of The Woods, his sixth, I'm going to go out on a limb and argue that the music is the best thing about it. Not that it's extraordinary in any way. McMurtry's tunes tend toward the lean -- no fancy changes, no pushing of boundaries, just muscular, thoroughly electrified folk-rock laid down by a road-tested band in which drummer Daren Hess and bassist Ronnie Johnson lockpin the groove with vise-grips while guitarists David Grissom, Stephen Bruton and McMurtry himself tear it up on top. If Iowa's Greg Brown is the master of this deep brown sound, McMurtry gives him a good run. At least until you run into the lyrics. He's reasonably interesting -- which is to say, in this case, nasty and insightfully disdainful -- on the subject of women ("Valley Road"). But he goes wrong when he steps out of the (apparently) personal and into the sociological. McMurtry, like the Pacifica crowd that laps him up, loves to wallow in garbled nostalgia. He disses Starbucks, duh (and this from a guy who's turned his own hat into a logo), and includes no less than three references, in various locutions, to bathtub speed. This sort of canned populism and studied grit sounds, to me, like another guy sitting around Austin listening to NPR in the mornings and rewriting it at night. Still, "Red Dress" (which disdains either a woman or an addictive personality, or both, hard to tell) and "Lobo Town" (a harsh halogen spot on the decline and fall of cowtown aristocracy) rock with authority, especially coming from someone critics still like to call a "literate" singer-songwriter. If he'd just let his guitar do a little more of the talking...