Last time David Baerwald released an album -- and it was a good, long nine years ago -- he went for the deliberately obscure and willfully difficult, from the title Triage on down to the deep, dark grooves of the music. Now, in 2002, he came back seemingly from nowhere with a record that announced its intent in its title: Here Comes the New Folk Underground. Of course, Baerwald didn't spend the years since Triage in exile -- he was an instrumental force in Sheryl Crow's breakthrough Tuesday Night Music Club and was nominated for a Golden Globe for "Come What May," the love song for Baz Luhrmann's Moulin Rouge. Still, the comeback in 2002 seems apropos of nothing, but Baerwald claimed in the press release accompanying his album that he thought there was no place for his kind of songwriting until Lost Highway came along. And that very well may be true -- though he certainly wasn't a stranger to slick productions in the past (both David & David's Boomtown and his solo debut were state-of-the-art productions), he wrote songs more reminiscent of short stories than radio-ready ditties, and his music was firmly entrenched in classic singer/songwriter tradition, hardly a welcome sound in the post-grunge '90s. So, he sat it out, eventually coming back once the alt-country movement made it OK for him to resurface, but the thing is, as this understated but gloriously realized comeback illustrates, he's both too literary and too musical to be grouped with the humorless, doggedly serious traditionalists that have laid claim to roots music and singer/songwriter tradition through passive-aggressive maneuvers. With a sly, deft hand, Baerwald reveals the folly of treating songwriting as a gravely serious matter, turning out a record that is warm and musically supple, filled with words that are as effective at relating pathos as turning a joke. This doesn't reveal anything new, but it's much more accessible than Triage, more resonant than Bedtime Stories, and as consistent, in content and theme, as Boomtown. This doesn't mean it's a masterpiece, since he still falls into some of his pitfalls -- pretension gets the better of him a few times, whether it's in the deliberately sub-Bukowski, Randy Newman-meets-Tom Waits "If (A Boy Whore In a Man's Jail)" or the "slip-slide" motif on "The Crash" -- but these become endearing with repeated listens, and the fact is, very few contemporary songwriters wind up with albums as musically and emotionally satisfying as this. Let's hope it doesn't take a decade for Baerwald to release another record.
AllMusic Review by Stephen Thomas Erlewine