Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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Joe Ely

  • Joe Ely [MCA, 1977] A-
  • Honky Tonk Masquerade [MCA, 1978] A
  • Down on the Drag [MCA, 1979] B+
  • Live Shots [MCA, 1980] B+
  • Musta Notta Gotta Lotta [South Coast, 1981] B+
  • Hi-Res [MCA, 1984] C+
  • Lord of the Highway [HighTone, 1987] B+
  • Dig All Night [HighTone, 1988] B-
  • Live at Liberty Lunch [MCA, 1990] **
  • Love and Danger [MCA, 1992] B+
  • Letter to Laredo [MCA, 1995] Neither
  • Twistin' in the Wind [MCA, 1998] Neither
  • The Best of Joe Ely [MCA, 2001] A

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Consumer Guide Reviews:

Joe Ely [MCA, 1977]
Ely hasn't yet learned how to disguise his rather thin timbre behind savvy phrasing, but as a result he projects an attractive openness--country singers (the men, anyway) rarely betray such innocent longing. Not that he's a country singer, exactly--this is real country-rock in a unique blend. And if Ely is only three-quarters of a singer (more like nine-tenths, actually), he's two writers--his silent partner Butch Hancock evokes the eternal cycle of good times and Tuesdays after, of connection and distance, with a delight in wordplay that complements Ely's more direct lyrical style. A-

Honky Tonk Masquerade [MCA, 1978]
You know all that brouhaha about Texas music? Here's a record that bears it out for more than two songs at a time. Ely's emotional openness seems neither sentimental nor contrived. He balls the jack with irrefutable glee and sings the lonesome ones so high and hard he makes the next room sound 500 miles away. With Butch Hancock sharing the writing, there are maybe two less-than-memorable songs on the entire album. There's great (Lousiana?) accordion, apt (Mexican?) horns, and lots of (Lubbock!) rock and roll. In short, there hasn't been anything like this since Gram Parsons was around to make Grievous Angel, or do I mean Gilded Palace of Sin? A

Down on the Drag [MCA, 1979]
Ely's songwriting pal Butch Hancock, who's beginning to sound like a great one, contributes four more; if "Fools Fall in Love" sounds like a lame title, how do you like "Wise men hit the bottom, Lord/A fool falls right on through"? But Ely himself seems to have run short of tunes, and except for "Crazy Lemon" (which gets across on the crazy force of its lyric and vocal, not on its melody), none of his songs call you back. B+

Live Shots [MCA, 1980]
Like a thousand blues and jazz guys before him, Ely is an American whose live album should have seen America first--not a year, a charting studio record, and a major endorsement after touring the U.K. The claim that this injustice was a corporate blunder is boogie bullshit: even prime material acutely performed sounds a little redundant in an artist whose fundamental is songs. Still, this is prime and acute. Let's hope he rides the Clash's tailwind right into downtown Lubbock. B+

Musta Notta Gotta Lotta [South Coast, 1981]
Hanging out with the Clash hasn't been so great for Ely's music--he's rocking harder than ever, but with a forced urgency that detracts from the songs. Only "I Keep Getting Paid the Same" is heightened by his breakneck boogie, and both Roy Brown's "Good Rockin' Tonight" and Shorty Long's "Rock Me My Baby" would come across better if they rolled a little. Best in show: Butch Hancock's Spanish-tinged "Wishin' for You." B+

Hi-Res [MCA, 1984]
I have no theoretical objection to the man's hard rock move--it's the dumb-ass conventionality of the actual hard rock in question that gives me a pain. Where Lloyd Maines and Ponty Bone were aces on their country-identified instruments, Ely's new guys are arena dorks in their dreams. You remember the tunes and licks after a while only because they're so similar to thousands of others you soon forgot. And where Ely's own songs have always worked best as change-of-pace, here they're expected to carry the shebang. Except for the febrile "Imagine Houston," buried on side two, and maybe "Cool Rockin' Loretta," a find of a throwaway but no more, they sink it instead. C+

Lord of the Highway [HighTone, 1987]
A decade of being told what a hot shit he is has Ely oversinging to signify his intensity, which is too bad: he might have snuck in "Silver City" if he'd talked the song instead of howling it. But when he keeps it light--pissed off at Billy the Kid or his girlfriend's karate lessons or that s.o.b. Lucky, who gets the lowdown on the honey he left behind--Ely rebounds like he's made of silicone. He's an honest man--when Steve Earle and Dwight Yoakam meet women who take self-defense courses, they're too fucking pure to admit it. B+

Dig All Night [HighTone, 1988]
Not one track runs under four minutes. Not one reveals why he was ever mistaken for country. Not one was written by Butch Hancock, by anybody but Joe--though he did get help on the title tune, which suggests a self-knowledge otherwise in retreat. B-

Live at Liberty Lunch [MCA, 1990]
not country, not rock and roll--rock ("Me and Billy the Kid") **

Love and Danger [MCA, 1992]
As these things are now measured, he's finally a country artist--a good one. You can tell by the way Tony Brown stops him from oversinging. By the way he lays into the similes on "Sleepless in Love" and the rhymes on "She Collected." By the way he writes nothing but love songs, including two stinkers. By the way Robert Earl Keen furnishes mythos and memories without filling Butch Hancock's shoes. B+

Letter to Laredo [MCA, 1995] Neither

Twistin' in the Wind [MCA, 1998] Neither

The Best of Joe Ely [MCA, 2001]
Also the best of Butch Hancock, who wrote seven of the first nine songs here, until he ran dry, Joe got a big head, or both. You want to feel how fluently Hancock rolls out narrative metaphor, compare Ely's "Honky Tonk Masquerade"--title song of his second and best album, a well-turned set piece as good as said title and no more--to "Boxcars": "Well there's some big old Buicks by the Baptist church/Cadillacs at the Church of Christ/I parked my camel by an old haystack/I'll be looking for that needle all night." Some believe you can get all the ex-Flatlanders you need from Ely's first two albums, now available on a single convenient CD. But the 13 later tracks here complete a far stronger package, leaning hard on Ely's less poetic songs in a high-flying country-rock occasionally emulated--by Rodney Crowell, Charlie Robison, in their way the Dixie Chicks--but never equaled. Not even by Jimmie Dale Gilmore. A