Steve Earle

Sidetracks

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In his liner notes to Sidetracks, Steve Earle writes the following: "With the exception of the instrumentals...these (songs) are not outtakes. They are, rather, stray tracks, recorded at different times for different reasons that I am very proud of and are either unreleased or underexposed." In other words, Earle would appreciate it if you didn't call this another odds-and-sods collection and, given the consistent strength of his post-recovery body of work, he has every right to feel that way about this material. Sidetracks doesn't hold together with the cohesion of albums like I Feel Alright or The Mountain, but nothing here sounds like a leftover or something salvaged from the reject bin, either; these are solid and committed performances of good to very good songs, and they do indeed deserve wider circulation. Sidetracks also serves as a nice showcase for Steve Earle the Interpretive Singer. Since only six of the 13 tracks were written by Earle and two of those are instrumentals, for the most part you get to hear Earle try his hand at other people's songs, and for the most part he sounds great, bringing his own feisty stamp to tunes as diverse as the Flying Burrito Brothers' ode to draft dodging, "My Uncle," the reggae chestnut "Johnny Too Bad" (with Earle sounding like the first rude boy from Texas), the Chambers Brothers' psych-soul protest anthem, "Time Has Come Today" (featuring guest vocals from Sheryl Crow and ghostly samples from Abbie Hoffman; it was recorded for the soundtrack to Steal This Movie), and Nirvana's angst-fest "Breed" (actually the most faithful cover on this disc). Beyond a couple of minor quibbles (as much as one might enjoy "Creepy Jackalope Eye," the real keeper from Earle's EP with the Supersuckers was his high-attitude version of "Before They Make Me Run," which didn't make the cut here), Sidetracks is an impressive collection that makes clear Steve Earle's leftovers make for a better album than most songwriters could construct from their top-shelf work -- and that he can get over as a singer and not just as a songwriter performing his own work.

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