Second-Decade Discovery: A Critical Guide

| June 14, 2012

Live: Near Truths and Hotel Rooms (2003) — Live albums might not seem like the best format for acoustic folksingers, but this was Snider's best album to that point, not only cherry-picking highlights ("Tension," "Beer Run," "Side Show Blues") from spotty earlier albums in what was essentially a de facto "best of" but capturing an onstage personality so sharp that he could easily ditch his guitar and hit comedy clubs or the lecture circuit instead. Of local interest: Snider's absurdist account of witnessing the aftermath of a stabbing at a Circle K across from his Midtown Memphis apartment.

Grade: A-

East Nashville Skyline (2004) — A personal statement and artistic revelation that's everything good folk music should be: casual rather than stuffy, smart rather than merely correct, and really, really funny.

Grade: A

The Devil You Know (2006) — In giving voice to a bundle of characters on the margins of American life, Snider provides indirect testimony from the front lines of "a war goin' on that the poor can't win." The tone of these great songs (best of the bunch: the wondrous "Just Like Old Times") meshes beautifully with the two personal testaments with which Snider bookends the record: In the first, he greets death with a shrug and a smile. In the second, he channels Mississippi John Hurt with his guitar, tips his hat to hip-hop, tells a great corny joke, and responds to polarizing times with a hymn to uncertainty. A folk-rock masterpiece.

Grade: A+

Peace, Love and Anarchy: Rarities, B-Sides, and Demos, Vol. 1 (2007) — An odds-and-ends collection where the Hank Williams-referencing "Combover Blues" earns a good chuckle. But best of all are a few songs that seem to be leftovers from East Nashville Skyline that deepen that record's geographically specific concept.

Grade: B

Peace Queer (2008) — Probably Snider's most fully political release, this eight-song EP snarks on Dubya over a Bo Diddley beat, gets geopolitical via a tale of high school bullying, and covers John Fogerty.

Grade: B+

The Excitement Plan (2009) — More a song-cycle than the focused statement of Snider's other second-decade studio albums but has some terrific songs: Bookend statements of principle "Slim Chance" and "Good Fortune." "Greencastle Blues," a real-life arrest story turned meditative. And, perhaps best of all, "Bring 'Em Home," the closest Snider has ever come to a conventional "protest" song — with the "'em" in the title not just American troops overseas but the physical, psychological, and emotional baggage they bring back with them.

Grade: A-

Live: The Storyteller (2011) — A two-disc, 24-track concert album that includes only four pre-East Nashville Skyline titles, two repeated from Near Truths and Hotel Rooms. Good readings of great songs, but this thrives on the chatter that lends it a title: Snider goes into detail about a wayward night back home in Portland, a particularly ballsy "fan," and his failed attempt at playing high school football. But the best story here is "KK Rider," his eight-and-a-half-minute intro to the Jerry Jeff Walker cover "Don't It Make You Wanna Dance," where Snider recounts his time spent playing rhythm guitar in a Memphis country cover band while waiting for his first album to come out. The wild story he tells somehow involves a local pool hall, a rope swing, an unconscious woman, and two sleeveless .38 Special T-shirts.

Grade: A-

Agnostic Hymns & Stoner Fables (2012) — A ferocious return to the level of East Nashville Skyline and The Devil You Know, intensely purposeful in Snider's own sidelong way. Partly it's the songs, which sharpen his class animus, but it's also the sound, inspired by the wobbly roots rock of Bob Dylan's Desire and Neil Young's Tonight's the Night. There's a rattling uniformity of sound here that makes Snider's underclass vignettes motorvate.

Grade: A

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