Alliterative spasms notwithstanding, if you can find a ballsier blend of brains and brawn than Austin balladeer James McMurtry's recent dispatches from the harried heartland, borrow some big bucks and buy in bulk.
Sturdily and artfully cast in a gritty, gut-punch mold similar to McMurtry's outstanding 2005 Childish Things album, Just Us Kids further documents a gifted wordsmith's steady rise into the upper elevations of the indie roots-rock mountain. Whether he's assessing the current American condition in topical terms, as on the stingingly powerful "Cheney's Toy," or mining the deeply personal for nuggets of universal truth, McMurtry's fine eye for telling detail, leathery vocals, and muscular guitar attack cut to the quick like a branding iron through butter.
A storyteller first and foremost, albeit one whose ability to connect through purely musical mojo continues to grow with each new record, McMurtry casts an empathetic but unsentimental eye on a country wrenched sideways by war and economic plunder from on high. And though his rage against the machine is unmistakable (along with "Cheney's Toy" check out the blistering "God Bless America" and "The Governor"), the characters that populate McMurtry's pithy narratives aren't simple pawns in a high-stakes game. They are complex, flawed souls prone to learning life's lessons the hard way, often more than once. Opportunists, luckless hopefuls, and the emotionally walking-wounded tangle and untangle messily in the shadowy haunts just outside of town. In short, he's talking about most of us.
There's the title track's gallery of man-children who never quite get both feet into adulthood, and the well-intentioned title lovers separated by fleeting time and inertia in "Ruby and Carlos." Even a pair of gruntin' good-time romps through "Bayou Tortous" (which features crazed Cajun guitar from guest C.C. Adcock) and "Freeway View" are narrated by cats you wouldn't leave alone with your girlfriend for five minutes.
Let's hear it for tough but tender Texas raunch 'n' roll, thoughtfully rendered and determined to say what needs to be said. If Just Us Kids doesn't show up in full force on the Best of '08 lists come late December, shame on someone. • Mike Thomas