Before Sidetracks is half over, Steve Earle's assertion that its 13 tunes are not outtakes but underexposed gems is as credible as an Enron annual report. While there's plenty of good stuff here, the hit-and-miss quality of the collection makes clear that it's less a creative outpouring than a contractual obligation.
Let's start with the positive: "Me and the Eagle," penned for the Robert Redford snoozefest The Horse Whisperer, combines Earle's knack for building arresting imagery with a solid narrative structure. So does "Ellis Unit One," an incisive portrait of a death-row prison guard that appeared (minus gospel harmonies courtesy of the Fairfield Four) on the Dead Man Walking soundtrack. Less outstanding, but still better than anything you're likely to hear out of Nashville these days, are the soulful twangs of "Willin'" and "My Uncle," the latter a down-home take on draft-dodging.
As Sidetracks further demonstrates, Earle has cut some interesting covers in recent years, most notably a version of Dylan's "My Back Pages," on which the spacious arrangement and straining vocals call to mind Springsteen's youthful folk phase. The Chambers Brothers classic "Time Has Come Today" is likewise an excellent choice, despite occasional flaws in Earle's judgment as an arranger (including a transparent attempt by Sheryl Crow to channel Lone Justice's Maria McKee). There's also a sampled Abbie Hoffman anti-authority rant that sounds comically out of place when you consider that Earle has done time for coke possession. Also unsuccessful is the singer's rendition of Kurt Cobain's "Breed," a self-indulgent slab of guitar wankery that doesn't represent either artist's finest moment. Lame Earle originals, on the other hand, include "Some Dreams," which was written for The Rookie but is better suited to Hallmark, and the underdeveloped "Open Your Window," which was heard in the equally slapdash Pay It Forward.
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While Earle is almost constitutionally incapable of delivering a bad album, this one's spotty enough that all but the most compulsive collectors are advised to hold out for fresh material.