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James McMurtry

The worst part about listening to folk-rock music continues to be the album art, which is consistently stuck somewhere in the early '70s, when highly unflattering portraits of singer/songwriters were mandatory. Fortunately for my CD collection, I'm finally learning how to look past covers, and discovering a lot of first-rate folk-rock, particularly James McMurtry's new CD, Childish Things, his second release for the Compadre label.

McMurtry, son of Texas/Tucson novelist Larry McMurtry, is a storyteller in his own right. Whether he sings from the vantage of a child eager to experience the traveling show in "See the Elephant," or from the worm's-eye view of a Wal-Mart employee stocking shirts "just like the ones we made before / 'cept this one came from Singapore" in the protest rocker "We Can't Make It Here," McMurtry makes his characters bleed. Some critics can't tolerate his limited vocal range and deadpan delivery, but really, these are necessary elements of his style. His minimalist approach ensures that his lyrics take the spotlight.

Still, there's plenty of musical accomplishment in Childish Things. On "Memorial Day," full of scenes of family dysfunction, Warren Hood's fiddle enhances the song's ironic chorus: "Let's remember our fallen heroes / In the land of free." Meanwhile, in "Charlemagne's Home Town," Bukka Allen's melancholy accordion bolsters the loneliness of lines like "I measure out my life with coffee grounds." And when your relatives show up for some turducken, make sure and play them "Holiday," the only song brave enough to display the true and horrible face of the holiday season.

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