James McMurtry – Complicated Game


James McMurtry is a true craftsman of a story song and writes with the attention to detail and precision of a master short story author. Call it a vibe, style or sound, McMurtry has his own and you know it as soon as you hear it. His sound is like Mellencamp’s but worn down and run ragged from years of hard life. On Complicated Game the music is steady but understated and works to serve the lyrics and illustrate the world within the songs.

The blue collar hardships appear almost immediately on the lead-off song, “Copper Canteen.” The story is one that’s been told before, growing up before you know it, with a hard life while others around you succeed. But it’s McMurtry’s details that make the song come to life. There’s washing blood off the tailgate and wanting to kill one more deer before the season ends. But there’s also big details like big box stores out by the highway and the misery they bring. The melody and guitar sounds match the road-weary tales and the pace of McMurtry’s voice is as steady and unrelenting as life itself.

Some of the most interesting moments on Complicated Game are when McMurtry shifts away from his traditional sound. “How’m I Gonna Find You Now” isn’t a giant departure but its boot-stomping banjo and exaggerated back beat are a welcomed addition. Later, “Forgotten Coast” almost swings like a Bob Wills song without losing the McMurtry feel.

Complicated Game is less overtly political than his most recent releases. Possibly that’s because the political climate and leadership has changed, perhaps it’s just the direction he chose to go. But these twelve songs tell tales of society and the affect it has on the individual in much the same way Chris Knight works. Autopsy IV, of Nine Bullets fame, says the album is great for people who really miss the early Lucero albums. Craig Finn, of Hold Steady fame, writes in The Talk Box that “The music is always elegant here. McMurtry is consistently honest and the songs’ characters are dignified and nuanced. He never writes down to these people or judges their situations. That’s why Complicated Game is another fantastic collection of songs by one of America’s best songwriters.” I’ll just say it’s Essential Listening.

Official Site, On Facebook, Buy Complicated Game


In full disclosure, I am a huge fan of The Hold Steady, complete with a Hold Steady tattoo on my shoulder to prove it. I discovered them after Boys and Girls in America was released back in 2006. I was immediately captivated by their raw, loose, rock and roll songs about drug dealers, party girls, and sketchy guys. Craig Finn, their animated lyricist and front man, looks like a high school science teacher and mostly talks, kind of sings, all the songs. His vocal style is a deal breaker for many, but loved and embraced by their many fans. No one is on the fence with The Hold Steady, you are either a complete fan or just can’t see what the fuss is about. To me? The Hold Steady and Lucero are the two best bar bands in the world and I mean that as the very highest of compliments.

After three near perfect albums in a row starting with Separation Sunday in 2005, Boys and Girls in America in 2006, and Stay Positive in 2008, their charismatic keyboard player, Franz Nicolay, left the band and wasn’t replaced. The band downplayed the loss of Nicolay but their next album without Nicolay, 2010’s Heaven is Whenever was an overproduced lackluster effort and the first disappointing album of their career. All of this brings us to the recently released Teeth Dreams, an important album for the band to regain the momentum and vitality of their earlier work and appease The Unified Scene (as hardcore Hold Steady fans are known) and also appeal to new fans. So did they pull it off? Almost.

The good news is Teeth Dreams is a far better album than Heaven is Whenever and when it’s good, it’s very good. The first three tracks on the record are classic Hold Steady and sure to be concert staples for years to come. The first single “Spinners” is a joyful song about a girl “two years off some prairie town” filled with anticipation for a night in the big city:
“Once you’re out there everything’s possible/There might be a fight. There might be a miracle./Loosen your grip, it feels so incredible/Let the city live your life for you tonight.
On my favorite track on the album, the decidedly less optimistic “On With The Business”, Craig Finn set his sites on rampant consumerism and the endangered American Dream:
“Now all our friends are acting sketchy and lifeless./Waking up with that American Sadness./Dead receptors. Body limitations./Weak handshakes and great expectations./ Chemistry, currency, plastic, and magic./Come on everybody, let’s get on with the business./ I said a couple of things that probably weren’t technically true.

Finn’s conversational lyrics create an immediacy with the listener that is palpable yet there is enough depth to the lyrics that new rewards are unveiled upon multiple listens. Make no mistake, Craig Finn is one of the finest lyricists in music today. It is his lyrical poetry, and it IS poetry, that creates so many rabid fans of the band. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve seen a Hold Steady lyric in my Facebook feed. If you don’t ever see Hold Steady lyrics in your Facebook feed, you need to get cooler friends.

Yet efforts to broaden their range have not always had a positive effect for the band. Finn has made more of an effort to sing on the last two albums and by slowing down the pace of the fast, talky, lyrics it has lessened the charm of earlier works. Craig isn’t really a singer and in my mind he isn’t meant to sing. He’s supposed to excitedly spout  barroom poetry over sloppy riffs and big drums. To sing a Journey type melody you need a Steve Perry type voice.  Craig Finn just doesn’t have those type of pipes.

The Hold Steady don’t always play to their strengths on Teeth Dreams. I don’t begrudge a band evolving and challenging themselves and their listeners but sometimes it just doesn’t work. Maybe there is a reason AC/DC’s formula has changed little over the years, they know what they are and they’ve mastered their formula. AC/DC don’t do power ballads.  The Hold Steady’s efforts to branch out and be something that maybe they aren’t isn’t always met with success.

Having said all of that, I still love The Hold Steady. I will alway be a fan and you can bet the next time they come to Houston I will be there front and center. If you are new to the band I’d start with Boys and Girls in America, then Stay Positive, then Separation Sunday. If you already consider yourself a member of the Unified Scene you already own Teeth Dreams. If you aren’t already a fan, I’m hesitant to recommend Teeth Dreams as the place to start. It is doubtful Teeth Dreams will be influencing anyone to run out and get a Hold Steady tattoo any time soon but you can bet those older albums just might.

On With The Business

Teeth Dreams can me purchased on Amazon or iTunes.