Looks like the third time's a charm for Texan singer-songwriter Hayes Carll - the rough 'n' tumble country-folk outlaw has just released album number three, Trouble in Mind (Lost Highway), and it's a huge leap forward for the guy. Not only does his move to a major label give an extra boost of exposure beyond the Texan scene and onto the national level - his first couple of discs were either self-released or issued on a small regional label - but along the way he's landed himself a sweet supporting slot, opening for the similarly boot-stomping Old 97's. You'll see what I mean this Tuesday, June 17, when Carll works his storytelling woo-ha on the Fillmore crowd.
You can't miss that Texan drawl: Carll's is as thick as a brick, perhaps even given a little extra layer on top just to be sure no one's confused about his point of origin. Inevitably, Steve Earle comes to mind - particularly his first couple of decades' worth of recordings, rather than the genre-hopping excursions of recent years - thanks to a similarly evocative dusty whine, equally capable of a sneer and a leer as it is of hitting heartstrings with a broken admission of weakness.
Then there's the choice of subject matter. Much of Carll's material shares the barroom bluster of Earle's '80s and '90s output. Drugs and drink, hard-luck men and women, tight-lipped drifters itching for a brawl - sound familiar? Perhaps so, but Carll also tends to inject most of his character sketches and roadhouse recollections with plenty of wit and a no-nonsense poet's grasp of language. As much as I'd imagine he might argue that his songs are nothin' fancy, there is considerable complexity at work here. Sure, Trouble in Mind doesn't put on any airs, but the disc is a wordsmith's delight, loaded with lingering images and sly turns of phrase.
"Drunken Poet's Dream" - co-written with fellow Texan troubadour Ray Wylie Hubbard - is a rollicking combination of one half strut, one half stumble, mixing puffed-chest boasts with a slightly wobbly delivery. Much like the best of Earle's early work, the song is entirely convincing in making wrong-side-of-the-tracks situations sound downright energizing. My favorite bit: "There's some money on the table and a pistol on the floor / some old paperbacks of Louis L'Amour / She says, 'Honey, don't you worry 'bout Judgement Day / All these people goin' to heaven, they're just in our way.'"
The banjo/clip-clop percussion shuffle "Girl Downtown" offers Carll at perhaps his most charming. Buoyed along by a sing-song melody (harmonized to lovely effect by Carey Kotsionis) and a boyish nod-and-wink ramble, the track offers a less sullied view on love than is found elsewhere on the album. "Girl Downtown" is just plain cute, in the best possible way. Nothing artificial or cloying about it, but rather it's an awkward, warts-and-all observation of the ins and outs of infatuation and - maybe, if things go just right - dating. Most of us don't live in an airbrushed world, after all, and when Carll recalls "a girl downtown with freckles on her nose / pencils in her pocket and ketchup on her clothes," it truly, deeply resonates for the same reasons why we fall in love with our beloved's silly imperfections. And for further advice to the young at heart, consider these words: "Love's not stuck / it just moves slow / Turn around a minute / and away we go."
Truth be told, the so-simplistic-it's-profound essence of "Girl Downtown" made me think of Tom Waits, a mental link helped by along by Carll's choice of Waits' "I Don't Wanna Grow Up" on the album. Here, the bellow-and-howl of the original has been switched for a creakier, croakier - but curiously more strident - presentation. Whereas Waits clearly sounds older-than-the-hills in his version - despite all of his protests to the contrary - Carll's decidedly younger, possibly more vulnerable take gives the song a wistful coming-of-age quality.
Of course, I'm inclined to think that the mandolin makes any piece of music more emotionally stirring, and Fats Kaplin's strumming of the instrument is pure gorgeousness. Taken in the context of so many references to drunken nights and remorseful love, "I Don't Wanna Grow Up" feels here like a challenging cry, a defiant stamping of feet in the face of the uglies of adulthood. I wouldn't say it's an improvement over the primal wail of the original, but it's an equally potent flipside to the coin - and, considering the level of outrage Waits' covers tend to elicit (see the recent Scarlet Johansson album), it's deserving of the highest praise when somebody tackles the practically untouchable and pulls it off so triumphantly.
My other personal highlight: the honky-tonk piano rapture of "A Lover Like You," a sneering, sweating rant offering Carll as the Galveston, Texas, counterpart to Bob Dylan. Producer Brad Jones' delirious ragtime ivory-twinkling sends the song's breathless harangue firmly into mid-'60s Dylan territory, and Carll serves up a litany of put-downs and withering comments with an urgency deserving of the comparisons to the former Robert Zimmerman without resorting to mere mimicry: "You stole my pictures / you changed your face / I don't know how I ended up in this place / If I had a lawyer / I think I'd probably sue / I could never be friends with a lover like you." Ouch.
With Old 97's
Tues/17, 9 p.m., $25
1805 Geary, SF