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ALBUM REVIEW: Dwight Yoakam

Reviewed: 3 Pears by Dwight Yoakam

(Warner Bros., September 2012)

dwight yoakam

It doesn’t get much more country than Dwight Yoakam. The cartoonishly tight jeans and pointy boots, the hiccupy voice. So it might surprise some listeners of 3 Pears, Yoakam’s latest release, when the opening track, “Take Hold Of My Hand,” begins with a bopping, soulful bassline that would be equally at home as part of a Stax groove or somewhere on Fleetwood Mac’s Tusk. Before too long the chorus kicks in, all shaky tambourines and a minor-chord shift. “I've lusted for love, but lusted so blind” Yoakam calls out, “and trust for a heart is a hard thing to find / But what’s left of yours might help to heal mine.” It’s material lifted right out of the Roy Orbison play book, even concluding with an appropriate and sweet cascade of “Sha-la-la-la-la-la’s.” It’s a far cry from the washtub-and-string that the honky-tonk set is expected to swing to, but it’s exactly the sort of thing that Dwight Yoakam’s done with consistent success throughout his career. And few of Yoakam’s records have been as successful, and as authentic, as this latest effort.  

Beck produced two tracks on 3 Pears, “A Heart Like Mine” and “Missing Heart.” “A Heart Like Mine” is the single-to-be, and for good reason. The song jumps into action with a Monkees-like guitar line and jubilant handclaps. “Oh, I wonder why / You never tried / To understand / A heart like mine” sounds familiar, but it fits here, and Dwight’s voice sounds far more youthful than his fifty-five years. The song sounds a lot like something the British would've brought over circa 1965, but when you remember that Buck Owens’s “Act Naturally” (sonic kin to “Heart Like Mine”) was covered and appeared as a B-Side to The Beatles’ “Yesterday,” what’s being aimed for becomes a bit more clear.

Beck and Dwight triumph again with “Missing Heart,” a completely different song in both sound and mood. Things open with waltzing chords and snaky run-ons before the words sneak in: “I have a missing heart / with no place left to start / to ever find my way / around these empty parts.” The song captures those moments when, after all the emotional heavy lifting is over, you take stock of suddenly half-empty rooms, cabinets, closets, and just about everything in your life. The apathy and drifty-ness most of us have experienced after somebody’s vacuumed up our insides and run off is perfectly accented by the big canvas and sparse instrumentation Beck employs. “Missing Heart” is a song soon destined for the playlists of the woebegone.

3 Pears sees Dwight Yoakam take plenty of chances that pay off. Even if the sound on the non-Beck-backed tracks is a bit safer, it’s hardly sterile. The earlier-discussed “Take Hold Of My Hand” is followed up by the zany “Waterfall,” which features a thumping drum track and country’s wildest lyrics since Roger Miller cautioned listeners about the perils of roller-skating in a buffalo herd. Similar in its influences, “Trying” opens with a bass run that will have listeners thinking about iconic titles like Ben E. King’s “Stand By Me” or the Temptations’ “My Girl.. The song attempts nothing unexpected and doesn’t need to: The clopping drums and swooning bass sync mellifluously while the gently-strummed guitar pairs neatly with the higher-ended electric organ. Topped off with an easy-going and unassuming chorus, “Trying” serves as a reminder of the reach hitmakers in Detroit had on generations of Americans.

Somewhere between the AM Gold and classic country is “It’s Never Alright”, which is probably the most outstanding of Yoakam’s self-produced tracks. Starting off as a piano ballad in the vein of Jackson Browne, the sorrowful words (“they say it gets better / well, I guess that it might / but even when it’s better / it’s never alright”) are reminiscent of oft-anguished country luminaries like George Jones or Merle Haggard. The band soon enters, slowly shuffling in broken-hearted three quarter time. Listen carefully and there’s a soft horn gaining traction until you realize that, no, Dwight Yoakam is in possession of a horn section. “It’s Never Alright” contains daring orchestration (strings, too!) and takes listeners to a lot of different places in four minutes. There are moments when things become so anthemic that you actually forget the song’s tale of a man defeated.

And don’t fret: There is country music on this record, but it is a style far removed (both geographically and philosophically) from Nashville. The cover of Bakersfield, California, stalwart Joe Maphis’s “Dim Lights, Thick Smoke” is another one of Yoakam’s souped-up renditions of honky-tonk classics, while “Long Way to Go” sounds ready-made for contemporary country radio without sounding slick and soulless. The title track, meanwhile, is an excellent example of the boundaries Yoakam is willing to blur: A Born to Run xylophone flourish accompanies a crunchy, Melancampish guitar bit while Yoakam’s usually-pristine vocal track is given a tasteful tinge of distortion. “Rock It All Away” does just that and the open hi-hat that introduces “Nothing But Love” promises a punch soon delivered by the song’s ensuing riffery and six-string resonance. It’s the polished harmonies on the “Nothing But Love” choruses that stand out, though, as voices blend together in a fashion somehow similar to both Sacred Harp choral singing and, say, David Bowie’s work on Transformer. It’s a savory stew, to be sure, and Dwight gets the recipe just right.

3 Pears is both well-rounded and diverse enough to signal a move in the right direction for both the artist and, hopefully, the country genre as a whole. Tunes like “Heart Like Mine” and “Missing Heart” will make 3 Pears the kind of collectable oddity that never gets too under-appreciated, while “Take Hold Of My Hand,” “Trying,” and “It’s Never Alright” are songs that will catch future listeners pleasantly off guard for years to come. Of course, we should hope that 3 Pears receives some appreciation in its own time, as both Nashville and the steel-pedal pushers of today’s alt-country scene could learn plenty from Dwight Yoakam, who, after over twenty-five years of making music, still manages to stay a step ahead of the rest. 

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