by Jesse Hill
“Just us kids hangin’ round today, watching our long hair turning gray,” James McMurtry announces on the title track to “Just Us Kids,” his ninth full-length album. It is a statement that carries throughout the ferocious, self-produced album full of patriotic, poetically penned portraits of the Americans in our gutters and blistering political commentary on the Americans in their political positions of power; no matter how bad it gets, for McMurtry, there is no old man finish line in which you become completely calloused and hopeless. And it is this hope, the humor it gives him, and a wall of bad-mama-outlaw sounds, compliments of McMurtry and his Heartless Bastards (along with Ian McClagan of The Faces on keys), that’ll suck you in and keep you wanting more of these torturous tales of junkies, Gulf War syndromites, and vice-presidents.
The album kicks off with a welcoming, hell-raiser “Bayou Tortuous,” in which McMurtry’s 17 year-old son’s baritone sax gives it the chaotic sense of a party in the aftermath of disarray, like kids playing in the gutter streams created by a terrible storm; McMurtry discusses dancing in the fallout rain more fully in “Hurricane Party” and “Ruins of the Realm.” With “Just Us Kids” McMurtry says I’m tired of this “small town bullshit” and then later reflects on his life as a “damn short movie,” and you just can’t help but think of his father’s (yes, Larry McMurtry’s) writing, specifically The Last Picture Show. Though there is a forty year gap between the two tales and young McMurtry’s is made relevant by dot-coms and the pool-cleaning biz, the connection proves the timelessness that we can count on in Jr.’s songs. With “God Bless America,” “Cheney’s Toy,” and “The Governor,” McMurtry spits a deadly venom comparable to Kierkegaard’s at those corrupt politicians and war profiteers that we all know he dislikes so much, and though it is “Cheney’s Toy” that is already being the most talked about of the three, I find “The Governor,” a modern raucous interpretation of the rich getting away with murder (ala Dylan’s “The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carrol”) to be startlingly more poignant and dangerous, specifically when McMurtry jungle chants, “Money don’t talk when it’s one of their own.” And, lucky for us, any of McMurtry’s “political” songs are pardoned from hoaky-60’s-protest-songdome by McMurtry’s deep cut in flesh electric guitar and the seriousness with which he has contemplated them. “Ruby & Carlos” and “Fireline Road” are by far my two favorite songs on the album. In both, McMurtry humanizes the Americans that the mainstream has put far enough in the periphery to keep them from being seen. McMurtry grabs their arms and pulls them center to show that not only are they there, they are America, even the junkies “who [can’t] even feel bad without the [crank].” (Don’t be misled. These songs are heavy, so heavy, in fact, that McMurtry puts a “Brief Intermission” of light, instrumental music between the two. Thank you, sir.) The album closes with “You’d a’ Thought,” a final statement that it ain’t getting’ any easier with age and that we have hang-ups, insecurities and anxieties forever. The song in which, McMurtry bluntly says, “you’d a’ thought that we’d know better by now,” is so in the same vain as Leonard Cohen’s old man musings that it is parenthetically titled “Leonard Cohen Must Die.”
“I don’t want another drink; I just want the last one again. It gave me such a fine glow…” Well, maybe James McMurtry knows a little better than he’s letting on. And though the burden of wisdom must be tough to bear, Just Us Kids proves that you can still have a good time while doing so.