Dwight Yoakam returns on a new label with his first album proper in three years -- the soundtrack to his directorial film debut, South of Heaven, West of Hell is just that, not an album of songs. And while one might wonder if Population Me is more of the same brand of Bakersfield-styled honky tonk blues from Yoakam and be right, there are two arguments as to why it's a necessary purchase. First and foremost, the quality of Yoakam's material is the most consistent in country music since the outlaws of the mid-'70s. Arguably, Yoakam has never released a shoddy album, and this one is no exception. Most importantly are the surprises, of which there are plenty. On the opener, "The Late Great Golden State," written by Mike Stinson, Yoakam does his best Jackson Browne-Eagles -- and actually reveals why the L.A. drugstore cowboy sound is timeless when done right. Eagles bassist Timothy B. Schmidt lends a hand on the backing vocals and gives it a solid "take it easy" rollicking roll. Elsewhere, as on the title track driven by guitar ace Pete Anderson and pedal steel, banjo, and dobro king Gary Morse, Yoakam weaves a perfect blend of driving rockabilly, Chuck Berry, and honky tonk. On a banjo-drenched cover of Burt Bacharach's "Trains and Boats and Planes," Yoakam sings his skinny butt off, while Anderson rides the mandolin down into the lost wail of Scott Joss' fiddle. They transform the pop song into a traditional country shuffle graced with the high lonesome sound of Earl Scruggs' electrifying banjo work, punching the fills and turnarounds with grease and grit. "If Teardrops Were Diamonds" is one of Yoakam's most beautiful ballads. Willie Nelson performs a duet with him, adding a gorgeous pop sensibility to Yoakam's hillbilly moan. Through the rest, Yoakam's songwriting continues to grow and transform itself into an accurate reflection of American culture as felt through the poetic heart of a country musician. The songs are right there: lean, tough, raw, and drenched with hooks as well as emotions -- check out the honky tonk stroll of "I'd Avoid Me Too." This is stellar, kickin' impure country.
AllMusic Review by Thom Jurek