New works from four well-known Americana artists — James McMurtry, Son Volt, Jackson Browne and I See Hawks in L.A. — arrived at summer’s end, and McMurtry’s The Horses and the Hounds (New West Records) clearly leads on several fronts.
The 10th studio album from the son of Western writer Larry McMurtry even exceeds his powerful works from the early 1990s. McMurtry’s house band Heartless Bastards sounds stronger than ever, and the lyrics range from the hilarious imagery of “Canola Fields” to the sardonic, almost furious politics of “Operation Never Mind.”
Jay Farrar saunters into the latest Son Volt album, Electro Melodier(Transmit Sounds/Thirty Tigers) with a gentler, lackadaisical intent. At first, the album seems as formless as the 2017 Notes of Blue album, but suddenly, the politics ratchet up to the level of 2019’s furious Union. Where the 2019 work was a denunciation of Trump world, tracks like “Livin’ in the USA” and “These Are the Times” on the new album are pleas for solidarity and hope. Maybe Son Volt is starry-eyed at times, but Farrar has set the band on a “We the People” path that is admirable.
Rob Waller and Paul Lacques have been fronting the Southern California country-rock band I See Hawks in L.A. since the turn of the millennium, and On Our Way (Western Seeds Records) could probably be considered the most bluegrass of their portfolio. This ranges from the high energy of “Might’ve Been Me” to the sweet whimsy of “Kensington Market.” But the band ends with an 8-minute psychedelic track “How You Gonna Know?” as if to remind listeners this is no simple bluegrass ensemble.
It’s painful to admit that the least crucial of the four albums belongs to the classic Southern California folkie, Jackson Browne. For 50 years, Browne has alternated between powerful topical protest songs and albums of intense personal confession, like Late for the Sky and The Pretender. The new album Downhill From Everywhere (Inside Recordings) doesn’t fall into either category, though — it just sounds tired. Every now and then, in “My Cleveland Heart” and “Until Justice Is Real,” hints of the old Browne show through, but many other tracks are more trite than memorable.