Red House Records' 13 Ways to Live is the latest addition to the seemingly endless onslaught of compilations (not to mention films and books) declaring an alternative State of the Union address. Like Barsuk Records' Future Soundtrack for America and Fat Wreck Chords' Rock Against Bush, 13 Ways to Live presents a number of contemporary musicians musing on the United States' invasion of Iraq and supposed War on Terror. 13 Ways to Live is a compilation of slightly more interesting caliber: all 13 selections are performed by Texas-based songwriters, written and recorded specifically for their inclusion. In addition, all proceeds from the album will be donated to the Vietnam Veterans of American Foundation, an international humanitarian organization.
Bukka Allen, who helped to assemble the album and recorded all of its tracks with his bandmates in Screen Door Music, writes in the liner notes: "This collection of music was made in response to the war in Iraq. It was an avenue for artists and musicians to express their feelings, thoughts and ideas about the situation we all found ourselves in.... This collaboration effort has made me realize how wonderful the human spirit can be and how strong things can become by simply taking the initiative to act upon what you care about." Very noble intentions, indeed, and 13 Ways to Live is decidedly on track with observant songs by gifted writers for most of its running time. A few tracks veer into shallow water, lured by either inconsequential lyrics or uncontrolled editorializing, but the record's strengths surpass its intermittent weaknesses.
The most resounding blows delivered by 13 Ways to Live are those that are not bogged down by weighty indulgence or slow, impending despair. David Baerwald's weary "If Wishes Were Horses" laments the realities of a war-torn world, refusing to offer up unfounded solutions for human suffering. Baerwald's weathered voice paints a bleak picture of life during wartime: "If only if only / The sad doctor sighed / If only they'd brought her / To me here in time / But the streets were in ruins / No cars could pass by / She never need have died / If only". The chorus, with it wheezing harmonium and clarinet, turns impossibly fantastic as if it were the key tune in an existential musical: "If wishes were horses / And hopes were diamond rings / We all would be riding / Bejeweled like kings".
Butch Hancock's "The Damage Done" is an old school protest narrative, witty and wise like Dylan's golden years. Hancock is the disc's elder statesman, and his accordion-spiced uptempo tune makes a strong case for the best of the bunch. His verbose, multi-stanza denunciation notes "how we fight for love or money / And how we fight for fun / And how we sometimes fight just to see / Some damage done". Like Hancock, Eliza Gilkson pinpoints the dark alcoves of human nature in the rootsy "Highway 9". Gilkson's thinly veiled indictment of the Bush administration lambastes the greedy, self-serving tactics of those who "fulfill scripture in the holy land". "Get your big trucks rollin' down Highway 9," Gilkson sings in the double-time chorus, "Put on the armor it's party time / Gonna dance with the devil of our own design."
Perhaps the most surprising contribution is made by Will Sexton, whose "Whittled by the Wind" seems to have been secretly plucked from Tom Waits' cabaret-roots catalog. The song's instrumentation -- accordion, cello, steel guitar -- openly weeps in the chorus and helps to empower Sexton's emotional wallop: "The blood money so colorful to spend / And every retinue / There is always ransomed youth / Whittled down by the wind".
Solid efforts are issued by Ian Moore ("Things We Carried", a fierce rocker that spits venom like "would Jesus smile upon you when you washed your bloody hands"), Alejandro Escovedo (the feedback squall of "Notes on Air"), and Richard Buckner ("The Song of the Low", a tune that matches a drinking song melody with ye olde lyrical stylings of Ernest Jones). Abra Moore, Jack Ingram, Terry Allen, Patty Griffin, and the aforementioned Allen all make appearances as well, but their songs are arguably lightweight in comparison. From plodding melodies to unsuccessful commentaries, these are the songs that represent the looming pratfalls of political songwriting.
Ultimately, it's hard to criticize musicians who put forth an effort to stimulate thought and change in a year so rife with political uncertainties. 13 Ways to Live has its heart and mind in the right place, and is notable for its majority of terrific songs. It's the album to turn to if you're looking for more intelligent voices from Texas, an alternative to Dubya's bumbling absurdities. Bush may give Texas a bad name, but these songwriters proudly fight to restore its honor and respect.