Out Here

Time of the preacher

Dangerous Spirits
Ray Wylie Hubbard
Philo/Rounder Records

Much has been made of Ray Wylie Hubbard and how this, his first major-label album, marks his coming into his own. Actually, Hubbard established himself with Loco Gringo's Lament, his 1994 album for Dejadisc and the first album he'd made that was consistently good. Lament marked a return to the country-rock pioneer's folkie roots, full of sharp, pithy songwriting and heavy with acoustic flavors.

Dangerous Spirits continues and consolidates that trend, consistently--and coherently--a tribute to that which lies at the very heart of folk music: storytelling. Long a fan of poets and their work, Hubbard finally seems to be joining their ranks, his lyric depth and richness complemented by Dobro, mandolin, and acoustic guitar.

Outlawry as a theme comes to Southwestern songwriters almost by osmosis, and Hubbard is no exception. The title track deals with the most traditional definition of the word--a gunman with "a pistol in my hand and no kindness in my eyes" who chooses a gentler path. Yet Hubbard--a recovering speed freak and serious drinker--knows that there are more laws to stand outside of than just those of man, and that the most dangerous spirits already know our name. He adroitly handles both sides of the rejection-redemption equation--the former with songs like the dark, moody "Last Train to Amsterdam" and the doomed narrator of "The Last Younger Son," the latter with cuts like"Resurrection" and "If Heaven Is Not a Place to Go."

Yet Hubbard's approach is far from simplistic. There is a duality that runs through "Spirits" as thickly as it does through life: hope amid horror, and black forces that no amount of reform will ever completely dispel. "Resurrection" in particular is an excellent embodiment of this yin and yang, blessed with a harmonica-driven momentum that recalls Bob Dylan's "Lili, Rosemary, and the Jack of Hearts" (but thankfully several orders of magnitude shorter) and full of divided images: a perfumed angel with whiskey on her breath, music and thunder, a fuse and its resultant fire.

What it all adds up to--in a summation of theme that's rare these days--is personal liberation, a total that's sharply and humorously presented on "Hey, That's Alright," a song that tells the story of a love who has either relapsed or continued along a path of indulgence. As the verses recount a drunken embarrassment in a bar, the chorus reiterates "Hey, that's alright, I believe I'll be OK," a succinct expression both of individual sovereignty and the salvation that can come from it. It's a steadfast belief that you'll share at the end of each listen of Dangerous Spirits.

--Matt Weitz

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Matt Weitz