Dwight Yoakam, 3 Pears. For someone who owes as much to John Lennon and Frederich Nietzsche as Bill Monroe and Buck Owens, Dwight Yoakam has always laughed in the face of convention and at the same time probably knows as much about country music as any person ever born. It's his masterful way of shaping those conventions to his own efforts, and then amping them up as much as necessary that makes his 30-year career so irresistible. On 3 Pears he outdoes even himself.
Yoakam has always been in love with guitars: acoustic, electric and everything in between. From the very start on that first Oak Records EP, there was a sound that he found which came across slightly different. Maybe it was the way his warm but piercing voice played against the strings, or possibly he just knew how to make it resonate against the wood. But at a time when the so-called New Traditionalists were nailing up new shingles in Nashville, Dwight Yoakam always called Southern California home. He avoided Music Row as much as he could, made his own rules and stuck to them. Which is probably one good reason why his new album is so exciting.
Songs like "Waterfall" and "It's Never Alright" are new even for Yoakam, stretching the extra mile the singer-songwriter always seems to go anyway. The several years he's taken off since his last album have allowed him to regenerate what was always a laser-like focus on hitting the exact place where a recording sessions catches fire. For good measure, Yoakam also enlisted Beck to produce two songs, possibly to show he's as unafraid as ever to put Nashville to the test as he chases the music in his head. And if there's ever been a song that shows just how adventurous Yoakam is, it's the title track "3 Pears." Just call it all the Y-factor, and leave it at that. Yee-haw.
Rickie Lee Jones, The Devil You Know. To follow Rickie Lee Jones through the briars and the brambles is to know the joy of self-discovery, because her music has continually been something she makes to find herself, allowing us to do the same. Sometimes the walls she puts up around it are almost too high to climb, and other times it's like she's snuck inside your house in the middle of a long night and made herself at home in the bed next to you. No matter which Rickie Lee Jones appears, it is always someone who has something to teach us and hopefully make us feel what it means to be alive. That is her gift, and the good news as heard on this new album is she's sticking to it.
Jones has cracked open the book of her favorite songs written by others, and with producer Ben Harper has stripped down the sound to the beams. That's not to say this is a simple style, because really nothing this woman does could be called simple. The level of emotion on each of these selections is something to behold, and even when it becomes almost too much, there is always a presence which pulls us through. Beginning with the Rolling Stones' "Sympathy for the Devil," the singer inhabits the song with a spiritual force while challenging listeners to come along. This may be no easy ride, yet it's also one not to miss. Neil Young's "Only Love Can Break Your Heart" assures us of that soon enough, and after that classics by The Band, Van Morrison, Donovan, Tim Hardin and others allow Rickie Lee Jones to paint a self-portrait that could also be us. She is showing us this is what great music does: it connects us.
Like all great songwriters do when they need a chance to catch their breath and recharge the battery, moving into the work of others is a way to find a good place to land for awhile. It's her ability to make those songs become completely her own that shows the fearless place she's always called home, whether it's spotting Chuck E. at the Pantages, filling up the tank at the last-chance Texaco or just hitching a lift to Coolsville. The woman has built her own highway of music, and if she's taken a moment now to cruise in someone else's car for this particular journey, it's still the Rickie Lee Jones show all day long. We wouldn't have it any other way.
Peter Green, Blues Don't Change. Put Peter Green in only a handful of Anglo bluesters that were able to break through the separation line and create music for the ages. First recognized in John Mayall's Bluesbreakers on the Hard Road album, Green may have taken Eric Clapton's spot there, but he made the role all his own. The lead guitarist played like he'd visited a few outlying planets at the same time he stayed grounded in the dirt. That's not an easy accomplishment, either, so give the man credit for making his own space. After leaving Mayall's crew Green co-founded Fleetwood Mac and put a modern spin on the blues that pointed the way toward the future. For that alone Peter Green created his own page in the history books forever.
Of course, the old saying "be careful what you ask for" was too true for the Englishman, as the Mac attack became all too much for the man and Peter Green became a near-casualty of the rock and roll hoochie coo. Thankfully he lived through it and over the past 40 years has made his way back slowly but surely. But if he never hit the heights on guitar he was first known for, Green can always hold his head high and know that the blues has seen him through.
This 2001 album has been somewhat of a collector's album for over a decade, and it's easy to hear why. The Brit's guitar captures the down home blues in all its glory on songs by Jimmy Reed, Muddy Waters, Sonny Boy Williamson and other Chicago kingpins. Green's gruff voice has become something truly aged in time, and captures the pain of someone who has seen the dark side of the moon more than their fair share. The way Peter Green turns that hurt into light is the real magic of the blues, and when you hear it done by someone who has also lived those troubled times, the veil is lifted and life begins again. Amen.