There is just enough organic warmth in “Just Us Kids” to make those who grimace at James McMurtry’s grizzled vocals forgive him his sin of sounding like a Texas roughneck. The veteran Austin songwriter does what he does best on the evocative title song, gingerly pulling on heartstrings like a hairy desolation angel in his character study of aging pony-tailed hipsters. While his eighth studio release features this sure-fire winner, be warned that McMurtry now lives in a political world, with little fanfare and less bullshit, and could care less about who he might piss off.
In the slacker title track, McMurtry updates the saga of Johnny (or a reasonable facsimile of his everyman from 1992’s Candyland), a striving achiever who gets lost as he matures from high school whiz kid to full-grown Renaissance man. A decade and a half later, Johnny has moved to California to make easy money — starting a dot-com before the tech bust — and ultimately finds solace in the fact that he and many of his friends remain around, even if they are “not so skinny / maybe not so free / not so many as we used to be.”
Longtime sideman Daren Hess provides tribal percussion, boosted by John Nelson’s congas, which keeps “Just Us Kids” from maudlin pretension. Sweetening by ex-Faces keyboardist Ian McLagan (a longtime supporter who also provides rollicking barrelhouse piano on “Freeway View”), makes it the most lighthearted track here, though McMurtry is not afraid to toss a hard-earned punch line anywhere else his muse takes him.
Just as McMurtry’s sophomore release Candyland surprised folks so long ago with its rock foundation, largely anchored by Joe Ely/John Mellencamp guitarist David Grissom, his follow up to 2005’s Childish Things -– which featured a surprisingly overt economic lament “We Can’t Make It Here” — comes complete with more pointed weapons and a tough band that continues to mature. He is so rooted in the political present that he follows Johnny’s sojourn with a double shot of liberal bluster. There’s”God Bless America”, a swampy tale of “three wise men in an SUV”, and the hard-as-iron “Cheney’s Toy”, a thinly-veiled assault on George W. that rumbles along like a Hummer on a Baghdad blacktop. There he spews a mean chorus:
You’re the man — show ’em what you’re made of
You’re no longer Daddy’s boy
Take a stand, give ’em what they paid for…”
A marching chorale builds intensity as the song winds down, reminding you of a Warren Zevon mercenary at his fiercest. While it could be boorish in its black-and-white assessment of U.S. overseas maneuvering, McMurtry makes it work because his anger is so plain spoken, not to mention because the president has fallen so low in the polls that even he must dream of some escape.
When McMurtry tackles the aftermath of a long night in the midst of a New Orleans disaster in “Hurricane Party”, the story comes off as a twisted Mardi Gras evening because he relates a personal disaster instead of a national tragedy. There are no leaks in the Superdome, just battered homes shaking in the wind, a missing cat, and an “insurance man biker” yelling for another drink. The assembled group swings along to Hess’ acoustic beat, assisted by McLagan’s organ and Ephraim Owens’ trumpet, as sweet as Kings Cake.
McMurtry’s most affecting story comes with some of his best fingerpicking in the Southern fable of “Ruby and Carlos”, which explores a doomed romance between a woman and her younger lover, an injured Gulf War vet who tries to eek out a living as a drummer. For all the references to Iraq, things don’t get overly heavy-handed until “The Governor”, a song about a murder conspiracy that plods along like a toothless legislative session and may just show that McMurtry is thinking more globally these days.
Originally intended as the title track, “Ruins of the Realm” finds McMurtry traveling the world as an Unquiet American, observing one disastrous nation-state after another while he picks his banjo. Brian Standefer’s cello serves as the calm in the storm. There is an antiquated feeling to the low-key anthem about where we’ve been and how far we have to go. Middle-aged acceptance concludes Just Us Kids with the realization that “through all the smoke and mirrors / I guess we do the best we can”, in the reflective “You’d a Thought (Leonard Cohen Must Die)”. The parenthetical reference to the Canadian songwriter is a joke, even as McMurtry’s stripped-down band — known as the Heartless Bastards — comes to terms with its own inability to change the status quo any faster than a bayou turtle.
Whether or not McMurtry reverts back to more personal writing come Election Day, he sings with his eyes open wide and his conscious clearer than most.