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Steve Earle
 I Feel Alright, Warner Bros. CD 7599 46201 2, 1996

 Steve is back, alright

Steve Earle's first major label release in four years marks the triumphant return of one of the great white hopes of the '80s. Earle burst upon the Nashville scene in 1986 with  Guitar Town, a tight collection of countrified rock that reached Number One on the country charts. Forging a sound that rocked more than any of the emerging Nashville hats, his country sound gradually took on a harder edge over the next three albums, until he scored big with  Copperhead Road in 1988. With his dark and expressive voice, songwriting chops, and a rebellious image, Earle appeared to be on the road to a durable career. But like reckless Nashville forefathers Hank Williams and George Jones, he soon landed in the ditch, fighting a desperate battle with booze and drugs. By 1992 Earle had been dropped by his label and was struggling to get his life together, never mind a recording career.

Then last year Earle released the widely praised  Train a Comin' and has followed it right up with  I Feel Alright. The first thing to grab you on hearing this disc is the newfound maturity in Earle's raspy voice. Bearing as it does the scars and bars of the last several years, it cuts through the two guitars-bass-drums accompaniment like 20 grit sandpaper. Earle's songwriting has also matured, and here he delivers a well rounded set. "More Than I Can Do" reveals a decided Fab Four influence, especially in the harmonies and harmonica bit on the choruses. "Poor Boy" is a delightful Buddy Holly homage about (what else?) girl trouble. "Billy and Bonnie" shows Earle's gift for narrative songwriting, this one a Bonnie-and-Clyde-like tale with a twist, accompanied by chiming mandolins over a Bo Diddley shuffle. "The Unrepentant" is an angry, driving number about a duel with the Devil. "Valentines Day" is a heartfelt ballad about a lover who has no gifts for his sweetheart, steeped with gospel vocals and mawkish strings in the best George Jones tradition.

It is no coincidence that the two best cuts also happen to be the most personal. The title song is a first round knockout, with Earle proudly declaring his return. The defiant lyrics seem directed at a music business where today's hot star is tomorrow's unreturned phone call ("Now some of you would live through me/Lock me up and throw away the key/Or just find a place to hide away/And hope that I just go away/Huh!"). Elsewhere, Earle aims his wrath at so-called "friends" that told him where to go ("Be careful what you wish for friend/Cuz I been to hell/And now I'm back again"). All the same, the choruses alternate "I feel alright" with "I feel alright...tonight," as if to acknowledge that life is lived one day at a time.

The other standout is "CCKMP" (or "Cocaine Cannot Kill My Pain"), a tense, hypnotic folk-blues about the vices that nearly consumed Earle. Over a narcotic dobro riff and raga-like guitar feedback, he eerily wards off the demons of cocaine, heroin, and whiskey ("Cocaine cannot kill my pain/Like a freight train through my vein") in a choked and brittle voice. Let's hope Earle's demons stay away. --  Scott Boggan

production notes & song titles

Steve Earle vocals, guitars, harmonica; others.

Feel Alright | Hardcore Troubadour | More Than I Can Do | Hurtin' Me, Hurtin' You | Now She's Gone | Poor Boy | Valentine's Day | The Unrepentant | CCKMP | Billy & Bonnie | South Nashville Blues | You're Still Standing There

of related interest

Steve Earle
 Train a Comin', Winter Harvest CD 91337 3302 2, 1995; now on E-squared/Warner Bros.

Copyright © 1996 Peppercorn Press. All rights reserved.