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Earle's Guitar Therapy

Senor McGuire

No Pain, No Gain: Steve Earle's self-admonishing songs dredge up painful memories of past binges.

On 'Feel Alright,' singer-songwriter Steve Earle comes to terms with his many demons

By Nicky Baxter

TODAY'S MARLBORO-LITE country artists can't hold a candle to rebel country-rocker Steve Earle. Even when he was out of his head with drugs, the 41-year-old singer-songwriter could write rings around the likes of Billy Ray Cyrus or Garth Brooks. His 1986 album, Guitar Town, was a flawed but startlingly original debut. Twang-time rock, blues-stained balladry, straight-ahead rock and, of course, country were all in the mix. Feel Alright (Warner Bros.), his latest, is both a statement of musical purpose and a declaration of a new (for Earle) state of mind.

The album is bulleted with unflinchingly raw autobiographical portraits. The self-admonishment of "CCKMP" is about as close to the bone as it gets. Though the singer has publicly sworn off booze and drugs, the song is not a high-and-mighty "just say no" finger wag; nor does it promulgate the wonders of getting gone. Rather, "CCKMP" (as in "Cocaine Can't Kill My Pain") is one man's plainspoken admission of the ups and downs of artificial stimulation. "The Unrepentant" tells the story of a badass who rebels with no particular cause and faces the fact with apologies to no one.

Scathing self-analysis aside, Feel Alright boasts a range of musical attitudes--and some fine tunesmithing to boot. Notwithstanding its woebegone title, "Now She's Gone" is a sprightly little number that finds Earle jockin' the melodic line from Beatle Paul's "I've Just Seen a Face." "Poor Boy" traverses rockabilly country; picture the Everly Brothers and Johnny Cash squaring off in the studio in 1959. Feel Alright is not the most beautiful album in Earle's bumpy decade-long recording career; that honor goes to 1988's masterful Copperhead Road. Still, there's not much to complain about Feel Alright's intelligent, straight-from-the-hip rock with a twist of Texas.

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From the May 9-15, 1996 issue of Metro

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