Childish Things follows James McMurtry's well-received live album by a little over a year and maintains the high standards set by that release while occasionally upping the stakes. The raw yet full roots rock-sound remains dominated by McMurtry's tough, no-frills guitar chords and longtime backing musicians, drummer Daren Hess and bassist Ronnie Johnson. The three-piece instrumentation is augmented by subtle yet effective use of fiddle, organ, mandolin, and even horns on the opening track. Nonetheless, the spotlight remains on McMurtry's lyrics and gruff, Southern-fried vocals. He returns to the "middle-American family gathering" story well again on "Memorial Day" and the closing "Holiday," both of which revisit a dysfunctional reunion. McMurtry's bone-dry voice and evocative lyrics haven't lost a sliver of their sharpness, which keeps the songs mesmerizing, if not exactly cutting edge. He also adds a few covers this time; Peter Case's terrific "Old Part of Town" (originally recorded for a Case tribute album) and the country standard "Ole Slew Foot," (shortened to just "Slew Foot" and featuring a stirring guest vocal from Joe Ely) are most welcome, as both are given arrangements that slot into McMurtry's established sound. Even if some of the predominantly mid-tempo melodies don't jump out, the lyrics generally do. "I measure out my life in coffee grounds" and "the color snapshots I sent you, all came out in black and white," both from "Charlemagne's Home Town," are just two examples of McMurtry's ability to throw literary curve balls. He gets political -- and angry -- on the album's longest and best track, "We Can't Make It Here," which builds in Crazy Horse-styled intensity as the singer spills out lyrics that describe the less fortunate who have lost sight of the American dream, with stops at the Iraq war and the outsourcing of Wal Mart merchandise. McMurtry's low-boil vocals and lazy yet gritty spoken-sung delivery perfectly encapsulate but never overplay his bitterness towards those situations, as he remains the ultimate observer on another classy entry into his catalog.
AllMusic Review by Hal Horowitz
feat: Joe Ely