By Brian Wise
JAMES McMURTRY – COMPLICATED GAME (COMPLICATED GAME)
One of the must-see gigs on any visit to Austin, Texas, is James McMurtry’s midnight show each Wednesday at the Continental Club on South Congress. He also plays a solo acoustic set upstairs at The Gallery on Tuesdays but it is the late show suits his mood more.
With band in full tow McMurtry will spin his dark stories into the early hours of the morning. When I was there last September it was an $8 entry, which is just about the best eight bucks you’ll ever spend. By the time McMurtry finishes your head will be reeling with his tales and it will be hard to sleep. (These days the sound seems less than the deafening volume it once was, perhaps because of a new sound engineer, local regulations or the fact that I am going deaf).
One early morning, stumbling back across the road to the Austin Motel, it occurred to me that McMurtry is kind of like Warren Zevon but without the jokes (though he does has a sense of humour if you pay attention). He is certainly as literate as Zevon, if not more so. If you really want to know what James is all about then just listen to the title song from his 2008 album Just Us Kids: here is an imperfect man with big dreams, mainly about getting as far away as possible, yet he can paint a powerfully provocative picture of life around him. It is easy to understand why so many people, especially in Texas, identify with his lyrics.
Of course, you would expect McMurtry to be an eloquent storyteller; after all, his father is the famous author Larry McMurtry who has penned marvellous stories of Texas and its characters. James’ songs are also populated with as many interesting and complex characters but on his new album they are not only from Texas but also from places as far flung as Wisconsin, South Dakota and Long Island. Given how much he has to say, it is surprising that this is McMurtry’s first studio album for nearly seven years. That wait has been well worth it.
McMurtry’s sharply sketched characters are set against music provided by a studio band that includes Benmont Tench, Denny Freeman (recently of Dylan’s band), Ivan Neville, Derek Trucks, David Hildalgo and Steve Berlin of Los Lobos and the great Warren Storm on drums. It does not get much better than that.
The album features some of the most beautifully tasteful playing ever to grace a McMurtry recording. ‘Forgotten Coast’ is a delightful JJ Cale-style shuffle (and other song about escaping) and it lopes along with a restrained lead guitar solo that Cale would be proud of – never going over the top, even when there is an obvious opportunity to do so. Just like many of Cale’s songs the groove seems simple but there is a lot bubbling below the surface.
“The label head wanted more acoustic,” says McMurtry. “We built everything as we went so we ended up with more acoustic guitar as we went. We just played whatever sounded right for a given song, but we weren’t necessarily saying this is an acoustic record.”
Much of the credit for the success of Complicated Game is due to the production of Louisiana’s CC Adcock (co-founder of Lil’ Band O’ Gold) and Mike Napolitano who persuaded McMurtry to record in New Orleans and got him singing better than ever. Realising how effective McMurtry’s voice is they bring it front and centre rather burying it in the mix, balancing it perfectly with the instrumentation.
“We concentrated on slinking up the groove (even if it is only America singer-songwriter),” writes Adcock about the album, “and on James’ singing and losing that West Texas warble that had started to iconically solidify in his tried and true character. James is kinda sexy, because he’s just so damn smart. He came with songs from his heart – about relationships – and deer hunting and fishing.”
“James is one of the rare few artists around who’s actually every bit as good as he thinks he is,” continues Adcock. “With songs that turn up so complete and perfect upon arrival, there wasn’t much for me to do/’produce’. And figuring and sorting that itself, is really what takes the time.”
On ‘South Dakota’ McMurtry sings about a returned veteran of the Iraq war. “We got no time to mess around / I’m not dying in this shithole town for a soldier’s pay” are lines that perfectly capture what must be the prevailing mood for many veterans.
Adcock relinquished the producer’s seat for a Tchad Blake remix of the album’s first single and also its funkiest and edgiest song, ‘How’m I Gonna Find You Now.’ Elsewhere on the album, McMurtry can be almost romantic but not here. “I’ve got a cup of black coffee so I don’t get lazy/I’ve got a rattle in the dashboard driving me crazy,” he sings. “I’m washing down my blood pressure pill with a Red Bull.” It deserves to be a hit!
Complicated Game marks a very welcome return to one of America’s finest contemporary songwriters.