The veteran country-rocker has a knack for taking unexpected points of view. Most memorably, "Ellis Unit One," from the "Dead Man Walking" soundtrack, looked at Death Row from a prison guard's perspective, but not without compassion--or a larger social point. His latest album offers another ambitious ballad, "Taneytown," a tale told by a retarded young black man. It's a chilling portrait of racism, framed by Earle's ominous blues guitar and Emmylou Harris' keening backing vocals.
"El Corazon" is most compelling, however, when Earle's giving it to us straight. His careworn voice limns tragedies large and small, lamenting absent heroes of the people on "Christmas in Washington," mourning the more personal loss of his friend Townes Van Zandt in "Ft. Worth Blues."
With co-producer Ray Kennedy, Earle crafts these spare songs from a palette of folk, country, blues and rock. The music is unified by a pervasive melancholy that not even the gritty "N.Y.C.," featuring Seattle punks the Supersuckers, fully escapes.
And when Earle gets just plain down 'n' dirty, he still does it with a twist: "Telephone Road," a decidedly secular celebration of debauchery, features backing vocals by gospel act the Fairfield Four.
Albums are rated on a scale of one star (poor), two stars (fair), three stars (good), four stars (excellent).