James McMurtry

The Horses and the Hounds

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The Horses and the Hounds Review

by Mark Deming

James McMurtry knows how to tell stories and fashion memorable characters, skills he picked up from his father, the great Texas novelist Larry McMurtry. James was already a memorable tunesmith when he released his debut, Too Long in the Wasteland, in 1989, but while his craft as a writer has steadily improved in the decades since then, it took him quite a bit longer to figure out how to make a record as good as his songs, something he finally nailed with 2008's Just Us Kids. 2021's The Horses and the Hounds confirms he hasn't stopped learning, and he's delivered what may well be his finest album to date, a tremendous meeting of form and content where neither side lets the other down. Working with producer Ross Hogarth and a band anchored by guitarist David Grissom, The Horses and the Hounds finds McMurtry working with a broader musical palette that deepens the dynamics and boosts the tonal colors of his music. Quite simply, he's never made a record where the musical performances serve his material as well as they do here. Though there's plenty of nuance in these performances, this isn't a contemporary folk album, but a rock & roll record through and through -- a smart one, and one that reflects the age and experience of the songwriter, yet it snaps with an authority and confidence that's taut and steeped in natural energy. The production and arrangements are not only memorable, they serve the songs well, and McMurtry's vocals are superb evocations of the protagonists of these stories: the man whose failing life and marriage are teetering on the edge of one trivial annoyance, the soldier eating an MRE in a war being run by KBR, a cowboy pondering the news of a friend's death, a couple still making sense of one of another after many years together, or an old man summing up the details of what's left of his life. McMurtry's songs deal with the stuff of adult lives and the disillusionment of the real world, but he doesn't write or sing in a way that makes them sound stodgy. His work is full of the messy energy and surprising turns of a life lived hard, and on The Horses and the Hounds, the music speaks as vividly as his excellent songs. Not many artists pushing 60 get to deliver as satisfying a breakthrough as this one.

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