Fred Eaglesmith is the poet laureate of the dying breed, and for a southern Canadian he sounds distinctly West Texan on his latest, Millie's Cafe. Much of the album works the same patch Eaglesmith has plowed a viable independent career upon: farmers going bankrupt, working men and women who can't get out of debt, stubborn old codgers who wave at the windmills of modernity like hopeless Don Quixotes, truckers who can't ever seem to make it home to check on disinterested wives. Working with a small, mostly acoustic ensemble featuring Scott Merritt on guitar, this may be Eaglesmith's quietest record, but the stories are so good and so real the unhurried quiet only helps these carefully crafted lyrics.
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Most of the decent folks who populate Eaglesmith's musical world don't fit in the suburbs and have trouble in the plural. "Rocky," a letter by a cowboy old-timer to a contemporary dying in a long-term care facility ("I warned you not to chew that goddamn tobacco") is full of grudging admiration and bitter commentary on the passing of the old cowboy ways. True to Eaglesmith's usual form, he allows these marginalized old-timers a hard-earned dignity but little else in the way of comfort.
Eaglesmith is a moving target, and not just because he seems to tour constantly. Over the course of 15 albums, he has stubbornly refused to repeat himself or to pander to his Fred Heads. Where his previous record Dusty had a pop sound dominated by keyboards and drums, Millie's Place is as folk as anything gets these days.
If it's like most of Eaglesmith's records, it will need time to grow. That's one reason Eaglesmith is so interesting; he makes records that take time to germinate and blossom in the listener's head. -- William Michael Smith
Fred Eaglesmith performs at 8 p.m. at McGonigel's Mucky Duck, 2425 Norfolk. Call 713-528-5999 for information.