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Going It Alone

Billy Joe Shaver
Freedom’s Child • (Compadre)

My first brush with Billy Joe Shaver came in the mid-’90s, when he was opening for Willie Nelson. I didn’t know there was going to be an opener and, at first look, didn’t know what to make of the father-son combo that hit the stage. (I also had no idea that one day I’d have the task of penning a bio/obituary for Eddy.) The two were rawboned and large. The white-haired father, Billy Joe, had a boxer’s face and the fingers of one hand were reduced to nubs from a sawmill accident. The son, Eddy, was mangy, dark-haired and carried a guitar. They stood on the expansive stage, unannounced, with just a couple of mic stands for company. “Where’s Willie!” a septuagenarian shouted playfully from the first few rows. “If he was up your ass you’d know where he was,” snapped Billy Joe, and he and Eddy broke into the first song.

From that auspicious beginning, it didn’t take long to figure out the breadth of Billy Joe Shaver’s accomplishments. As a songwriter, he has penned tunes for Nelson, Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash, Waylon Jennings and Kris Kristofferson. Over the decades, he has also released a spate of fine albums. The most significant came late in his career with his son, whom he began teaming with in 1987. That alliance, under the moniker Shaver, lasted until Eddy’s death from a drug overdose on New Year’s Eve 2001. The Earth Rolls On, their final album together, was a crowning moment, with Billy Joe, the cowboy poet, and Eddy, the rock-fueled guitar slinger, finally more of a true, melded partnership than a compelling, friction-littered juxtaposition.

All of this leads us to Freedom’s Child, Billy Joe’s first album since losing Eddy (and since suffering a heart attack). Here, Shaver’s lyrics are the poetry of resolve, emerging from a psyche that, while battered down, endures despite itself and tries to sublimate suffering into healing lessons. “Sometimes lovers get to close to understand/ It takes space to be a woman and a man,” sings Billy Joe in his thick, cottony tones on “Hold on to Yours,” backed by the easy roll of national guitar and B-3 organ. Throughout, Eddy’s searing blues-rock edges are gone, and Billy Joe hasn’t tried to replace them, opting instead for backing from some well-heeled Nashvillians and reuniting with producer R.S. Field, who helmed Shaver’s brilliant Tramp on Your Street.

Here, Billy Joe is at his best when he’s most intensely personal—as in “Day by Day,” which remembers Eddy and Eddy’s mother—or when he’s just plain having fun, as in the wily “Deja Blues,” which features co-vocals from Todd Snider. When he’s trumpeting to the masses, however, as in the title track or “Good Ol’ U.S.A.,” he’s not as effective. Suffice it to say, though, that Shaver has released another in a long line of fine albums. The hardhead with the soft heart may not understand why he was meant to outlive those close to him, but listening to Freedom’s Child one gets a pretty good idea.

—Erik Hage

Sonic Youth
Murray Street • (Geffen)

Like many bands spoken of reverently in critical music circles, Sonic Youth have never attained any semblance of mainstream commercial success. Yet it’s a testament to the vast influence and remaining vitality of the noise-rock pioneers (now in their 20th year as a band) that successive generations of college-age music fans have continued to worship at the Sonic Youth altar. Amazingly enough, Sonic Youth’s most recent release, Murray Street, has been as enthusiastically received by the college-radio-station set as any SY album since, say, 1992’s Dirty. (Of course, most SY fans would agree that there’s no touching the watershed albums: 1987’s Sister or the following year’s Daydream Nation.)

After many forays during the past decade into abstract, avant-garde weirdness, Sonic Youth may also have released their most listenable, song-oriented album in recent years. Although a couple of tunes push the 10-minute mark with long instrumental passages, Murray Street trades mainly in melancholic, tuneful atmospherics, rather than in guitar-skronk experimentalism. With lyrics that no longer rely on the profane (à la “Catholic Block”) or on Phillip K. Dick-influenced paranoia, Murray Street still boasts plenty of Sonic Youth-style double meanings and vague references. This time, however, it’s become easier to imagine the members of Sonic Youth (now in their 40s) as parents: The nonsensical title of “Radical Adults Lick Godhead Style” could be a non sequitur written for Coco, the young daughter of guitarist Thurston Moore and bassist Kim Gordon who is pictured on the album’s cover.

Only on “Disconnection Notice” does the well-planned obscurity seem a little tired: Obviously meant to invoke multiple meanings, the song somehow only conjures images of threatening letters from Ma Bell. But otherwise, Murray Street is worth listening to on a number of fronts. The wonderfully evocative “Karen Revisited,” for instance, may be one of the best songs that guitarist Lee Renaldo has written. And Gordon—long one of the coolest women in rock—shines on the album’s closing tunes: the punked-out, prickly “Plastic Sun” and the blissfully eerie “Sympathy for the Strawberry.”

—Kirsten Ferguson

Read and Burn 02 • (Pinkflag)

A year after releasing the thinking punk’s landmark album, Pink Flag, in 1976, Wire issued Chairs Missing—an album that embellished its predecessor’s angular guitar-bass-drum constructions with ambient synthesizer fills, pulsing rhythmic heartbeats and oddly sweet melodies. A quarter of a century later, Wire have now followed a similar path with the second disc on their Read and Burn series: where Read and Burn 01 was stripped down and noisy, Read and Burn 02 is dense and noisy; where 01 was maniacal in its dissonance, 02 leavens the audio extremity with occasional fragments of sing-song melody; where the sounds on 01 were generally identifiable as “guitar” or “bass” or “drum,” 02’s soundscapes are littered with processed tones and beats and fills of mysterious origin. But there are similarities between the Read and Burns, too, primarily in the aggression and energy that drive both discs—due in large part to Robert Grey’s phenomenal drumming and the tortured vocals spat with Jackson Pollock abandon across the sonic palette. “Raft Ants” and “Nice Streets Above” in particular, exemplify the best of both of those strengths, with Grey clattering around the rocket-fueled beats while Colin Newman and Graham Lewis declaim unintelligible series of nonsense phrases, lost in the ecstasy of some speedcore glossolalic fit. “Spent” offers another highlight, as layers of (presumably) Bruce Gilbert’s guitars build a palpable sense of tension within each vocal line, even as the rhythm section breaks free of its moorings and seeks refuge in a dance hall for the idiot spastic damned. It’s a song unlike any song you’ve ever heard before, on an album of bracing originality and verve. All told, Read and Burn 02 confirms that Wire aren’t riding a one-trick pony upon returning—a fact about which discerning listeners should be very pleased indeed.

—J. Eric Smith

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