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Steve EarleSteve Earle, Sidetracks (E-Squared/Artemis 2002) - Sidetracks marks a very cool release from the incredibly prolific Steve Earle. Earle tore up Nashville with his early releases, such as Guitar Town (1986), then sunk into a world of junkiedom which eventually landed him in the poky.

Since his release, Earle's gone clean, found roots in all kinds of American music, and released six albums in six years, ranking as one of the most productive spells since Bob Dylan found Greenwich Village.

Steve EarleSoundtracks assembles various odds and ends from the last half decade. Explains the singer, "With the exception of the instrumentals, which we left off of Transcendental Blues at the last minute (a decision I have often regretted), these are not outtakes. They are, rather, stray tracks, recorded at different times for different reasons that I am very proud of and are either unreleased or underexposed."

The album opens with "Some Dreams," which Earle wrote and recorded for the movie The Rookie, about baseball player Jimmy Morris, who in his late thirties discovered he could throw a baseball 98 miles an hour. This is followed by "Open Your Window," which Earle describes as follows: "Two-thirds of this appears in Pay It Forward. If I'd known they only needed two-thirds of a song, I could have saved us all a lot of trouble."

Steve EarleAlso included is "Ellis Unit One," from the Tim Robbins' film, Dead Man Walking, and "Creepy Jackelope Eye," recorded in Seattle on the day Bill Monroe died.

The highlights come from familiar territory. Thus, "Willin'" (written by Lowell George) is given a comfortable, bluegrass treatment. No so with "My Back Pages" (Bob Dylan), which has a tentative, wrenching feeling, with tremolo guitar by Doug Lancio, drums by Greg Morro, and bass by Garry Tallent.

Yet, the best track is a cover of the Chambers Brothers' classic, "Time Has Come Today." Earle works with the same band, and slices in vocals from Sheryl Crow and an incendiary speech by the late Abbie Hoffman. Explains Earle, "Sheryl was in LA. I was in Nashville. Abbie was wherever Abbie is. Technology rocks sometimes."

Steve EarleNot ready to slow down, Steve returned in the fall of 2002 with Jerusalem (E-Squared/Artemis), a thoroughly political statement by a man who speaks the truth as he sees it. Comments Earle, "This is a political record because there seems no other proper response to the place we are at now. But I'm not trying to get myself deported or something. In a big way this is the most pro-American record I've ever made. In fact, I feel URGENTLY American."

Taking a page from the Lou Reed book of production, Earle works with a tight band consisting of Eric "Roscoe" Ambel on guitar and vocals, Kelley Looney on bass, Will Rigby on drums and percussion, and Patrick Earle on percussion. Steve Earle provides lead vocals, as well as guitar, bass, mandolin, and banjo.

Steve EarleThe album opens with the burning intensity of "Ashes to Ashes." Says Earle, "Lately, I feel like the loneliest man in America. Frankly, I've never worn Red, White and Blue that well. I grew up during the Vietnam War...

"Well, we survived all that, and I believe that we'll survive this, as well...In spite of our worst intentions and ignorance of our own history, our Constitution has, thus far, proven resilient enough to withstand anything that we throw at it, including ourselves."

Jerusalem smolders with "Amerika v. 6.0 (The Best We Can Do)," with crunching guitars that indict our complacency. You have to take Earle seriously, as he is a student of both history and culture. Says the singer, "I still think what happened to John Kennedy is pretty much what Oliver Stone said happened to him. I killed 17 deer with bolt action rifles and believe me, no one could have done what they said Oswald did."

Steve EarleThe album thunders into "Conspiracy Theory," with a pulsing drum loop by Dean Clark and an understated chorus by singer Sionbhan Maher Kennedy. Later, Emmylou Harris offers guest vocals on "I Remember You."

The album has garnered the most attention for "John Walker's Blues," which deals with John Walker Lindh, the Marin County teenager and admitted Taliban fighter. With its opening, "Just an American boy, raised on MTV...I seen all the boys in the soda pop bands and none of them look like me," Earle recognizes that the issues in the Lindh case cannot be boiled down to a simple case of treason.

Like Joe Henry and Leonard Cohen, Steve Earle is not an artist whose albums I reach for on a regular basis. But when I do, I always admire their intellectual honesty and continuing efforts to get to gain a deeper understanding of contemporary America.

Consumer Electronics Show 2003 - My wife and I attended the 2003 Consumer Electronics Show held in Las Vegas. For anyone interested in consumer electronics, and in particular, high end stereo, it is a life-affirming show.

First, the main trade show is held in the enormous Las Vegas Convention Center. Displays of every kind of electronic product, from batteries through high end televisions, are present. Some of the larger companies, such as Phillips, have live stage shows in which a person comes out and does a live commercial for 10 or 15 minutes, demonstrating the product. The Philips show was accompanied by tumblers and acrobats. It fairly bordered on the surreal.

While I do not follow television development, I can tell you that Zenith has staked out its place as a leader in high definition television. The Zenith HDTVs were the class of the lot. On the other end, poor Polaroid is simply adrift. I walked through their display and came away with no sense of what Polaroid sells or what it's developing.

O'heocha speakersFor me, the highlight was the high end audio show held at the Alexis Park Hotel. This is Mediterranean style hotel, with about 20 two-story buildings spread around a pool. In most of the buildings, there were (on average) five high end stereo manufacturers and distributors in the first floor and five more on the second floor.

While much of today's music may be forgettable, the high end audio display will convince you that work on sound reproduction has never been better. I listened to at least half a dozen sound systems that cost more than $75,000 each. Absolutely amazing.

Spectron ampI also had the pleasure of rubbing shoulders with some extremely knowledgeable persons in the industry, who also happen to love the music. I was so impressed by the product made by Spectron Audio (president John Ulrick is a gentleman, and hooked up an oscilloscope and showed me how his amp worked) that I bought one.

StarletThe Starlet integrated tube amp made by Legend Audio (located in Berkeley, California) was a very nice product also, at a fair price.

I had a thoroughly good time at O'heocha Design, a speaker manufacturer based in Ireland. These speakers may have a low WAF (wife acceptance factor), but the sound was sterling.

In fact, we played some albums with which I was highly familiar, including Daniel Lanois, and I heard sounds that I have never heard before on that album. It was simply breathtaking to find other guitar sounds in the mix that I had never heard. Truly an eye and ear opening experience.

In addition, the tall Irishman handling the display was a real pleasure, as he related a story about how he played the Lanois album at his son's christening party some years back.

Emotiv tubesThe most pleasurable experience was in Suite 2153, where Emotiv Audio pared its amplifiers with horn-loaded speakers made by Moondog Audio. This was a $45,000 system, and it was absolutely flawless. To go out on a limb, I'll say that it was better than sex.

In addition, there was a re-mastered CD floating around with a Beatles outtake, an old Sonny and Cher number, and a Byrds tune. Someone had got his hands on the original source tapes, and mixed this music directly to the CD. THE SOUND WAS PERFECT.

Moondog speakersWhile many of us have complained that CD cannot generate the warmth and depth of sound that LP can re-produce, this CD made me reconsider my position entirely. The sound was flawless, with every nuance reproduced. It's a mixing issue, not a CD issue.

I think the problem with so many of the older albums that were released on CD is that the studios worked from the mix that was used to create the final vinyl. If they went back to the source tapes, I know (because I heard it with my own ears) that brilliant sound can be created on a CD. Just try the Chicago soundtrack, which is a hot and lively CD.

Run to next year's CES. Not only is it held in a fun location, but the displays are magnificent.

- Randy Krbechek © 2003

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