One encounters the term "folk rock" today about as often as one reads the liner notes to Fairport Convention boxed sets, but it still works best for true hybrids like Todd Snider. Formerly more of a bar-band wiseacre, Snider now comes bearing unimpeachable folkie cred. He has endorsements from singer-songwriters old enough to bear the modifier "grizzled" (Jerry Jeff Walker, John Prine). His guitar playing is flash-free yet clearly the work of a man who spends four hours a day in intense recline with a Martin. His melodies are always memorable and entirely familiar because melodic originality is never the point. He's expert at singing with soul while sounding half asleep; one can nearly hear a vocal coach barking, "Let's get ready to mumble!" And his populism is unerring: He gets robbed after a low-paying gig, and the resulting tune ("Highland Street Incident" from the new The Devil You Know) has us rooting for the muggers' slick-tongued ringleader.
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But whereas other folkies think rock has something to do with the electric version of "The Sounds of Silence," Snider opens The Devil with a rave-up that Jerry Lee Lewis or at least Joe Ely would claim, and later figures out what Southern muscle-car rock would sound like if Tom Petty's working-class fans wrote the lyrics. Pretty much everyone on the album is broke, and once in a while Snider falls prey to beautiful-loser bunkum. "You didn't want to throw a fishing line in that old mainstream," says a john/old boyfriend to a hooker, and it's hard to say which is worse, the wordplay or the sociology. Mostly, though, Snider is a smart and funny master of the three-minute narrative. On "You Got Away with It (A Tale of Two Fraternity Brothers)," a Randy Newman-level satire narrated by one of Dubya's old drinking buddies, he delivers pop's best anti-Bush salvo since Kanye's TV ad-lib. It's a protest song devoid of self-righteousness, rooted in the sentiment from the title track's defining line: "There's a war going on that the poor can't win." They can chalk up a few battles, though, and Snider loves seeing proles take chances and come out okay. "Watch what you say to someone with nothing," a construction worker tells his boss in another tune, "it's almost like having it all." Or as another folk rocker put it, "When you got nothing, you got nothing to lose."