Since getting his start way back around 1972 with the Flatlanders, Joe Ely has been a model of consistency as he’s explored his straight-ahead blend of rock, blues, and country. He releases a solid album every couple of years, usually filled with his trademark Texas-laced storytelling, and he even releases a live album to kick off every decade (three so far, each exactly ten years apart).
That description automatically implies stasis, and seems to describe an artist who dips his bucket in the same part of the well every time out. That’s not quite the case with Ely, though. True, he’s found his basic style and stuck with it, but he’s a rock-solid example of your traditional traveling troubadour (and does the world really need him to stray toward another synthesizer-obsessed Hi-Res?). There’s great comfort in the fact that you can generally expect a certain amount of quality from a Joe Ely record, even if it isn’t guaranteed to blow your doors off the hinges. Occasionally, he crafts a song or an album that justifies your faith (as he did with the help of flamenco guitarist Teye on 1995’s Letter to Laredo)—then he’ll tour, release another album, and ride the cycle as it continues to offer what it may.
Where does Streets of Sin fit into all of this? It’s Ely’s first studio effort since 1998’s Twistin’ in the Wind, and the years have apparently put Ely into a reflective mood (despite Streets of Sin‘s hard-charging start). Otherwise, it’s your standard Joe Ely record, balancing flashes of inspiration with standard Ely fare. Thematically, it’s an album where every character seems to stare in the face of adversity. Song titles like “Fightin’ for My Life”, “I’m on the Run Again”, and “A Flood on our Hands” kick the album off with three of its strongest songs, also setting the scene for Ely’s characters to tell their hard-luck tales. Ely’s narrators, though, rarely whine; instead of cursing the heavens, they just roll up their sleeves and get to work with a fresh reminder of life’s little cruelties. But they’re not beaten down. Hope still hangs in the air and the traditional escapes—the road, love, one lucky break—still hold their restorative powers. In the end, though, Ely’s characters know that they hold their fates in their own hands—a worldview that “All That You Need” sums up nicely: “For some it’s just a livin’ / But for us it’s our whole life / If it kills me I’m gonna rake that dirt / And make a livin’ out of toil and strife / The ways of the cities makes no sense / Strapped to dependency / I’d rather be sweatin’ ‘neath a clear blue sky / Plantin’ cotton with my family”.
Some of those tales end less happily than others. “Run Little Pony” (which sounds like it rides on a subtle variant of “Camptown Races”), about a man depending on the horse races for his break, ends up “lookin’ thru cold hard steel”. “Twisty River Bridge” tells the tale of a man who “woke up in St. James Divine / All wrapped up on plaster and twine” after wrecking his car and learning that “love, wine, and gasoline / Don’t mix with jealousy”. Throughout Streets of Sin, Ely tells these tales with his customary blend of no-fuss lyricism and storyteller’s eye.
Ultimately, though, Streets of Sin loses steam about two-thirds of the way through. After a raucous, driving start (the defiant “Fightin’ for My Life”, followed by the nice counterpoint of “I’m on the Run Again”, followed by the resigned gospel vibe of “A Flood on our Hands”), the album begins to settle into traditional Ely mode—which isn’t bad, it’s just not very new. “95 South” makes good use of some rockabilly lead guitar, and “Wind’s Gonna Blow You Away” is a neat mix of vintage Sun Records sound and accordions, and popping up throughout are light touches of Bakersfield country and Tex-Mex flavors. It’s a shame there aren’t more embellishments like that throughout the disc’s songs. Still, there isn’t a bad song to be found on Streets of Sin, but after a highly promising start, it’s a little disappointing to hear the album find its familiar Ely groove and stick to it so faithfully. What you end up with is solid on a level that many artists can’t attain for one album, much less over decades. If Streets of Sin suffers from anything, it’s really only Ely’s proven track record.