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Jackson Browne
Solo Acoustic, Vol.2
Inside Recordings
www.jacksonbrowne.com


When I was a lonely, bewildered college freshman, Jackson Browne's classic 1974 release Late For The Sky was among the records I turned to as I searched for meaning in life. I remember posting the lyrics to "For A Dancer" on my door, using quotes from Browne's songs in my AOL Instant Messenger away messages, and finding solace in a music that somehow pacified the yearning in my late-teenage heart. If this all sounds melodramatic, it's not. The music was that important to me. One thing I could never have imagined then is that, in the years following, Browne would find a way to release music even more powerful than Late For The Sky. He has. Earlier this year, Browne released Solo Acoustic, Vol. 2 (the first volume was released in late 2005). And I'm grateful and awed that he was able to pull himself out of a nearly three-decade run of underachieving studio albums, loaded with great ideas but undone by overproduction and arrangements that made often brilliant songs sound mediocre and at times flat-out embarrassing.

What Browne has done, then, is make a dramatic comeback not through new material, but by gathering all phases of his career and offering proof that his songwriting never waned. Both Solo Acoustic records achieve this, but the second volume manages to do it with only two 1970s tracks, and none from classic releases Late For The Sky, The Pretender, and Running On Empty. "Your Redneck Friend," a novelty country-rock track from 1973's For Everyman, finds Browne playing the class clown: "He's the missing link, the kitchen sink / eleven on a scale of ten / Honey, let me introduce you to my redneck friend." It's hardly the type of poetry on which his reputation as a lyricist is founded, but it's catchy, and it's comic relief to offset the seriousness of most of the record. The other '70s track is the heartfelt, bittersweet "Something Fine" from Browne's 1972 debut. A testament to what Browne has accomplished here: I had no idea, until I did a bit of research, that "Something Fine" was as old a song as it is. If you'd told me he'd released it six years ago, I would've believed it.

The remaining ten songs offer glimpses of the records Browne recorded in the ensuing years. All of the performances, including "Your Redneck Friend" and "Something Fine," are improvements on the original studio versions, and all of them are enhanced by Browne's somewhat age-worn vocals, which achieve something truly rare - rather than simply recalling his earlier days as a singer, his vocals evoke the emotions of his lyrics with the conviction and wisdom only experience can bring. The record's stripped-down approach also directs the focus to Browne's abilities as a musician - he switches between piano and guitar, and shows restraint and expressiveness on both instruments.

Every song on this record is a highlight, but among the most powerful are "In The Shape Of A Heart" (one of the most melodically and lyrically brilliant songs of Browne's career, from the 1986 album Lives In The Balance), "Enough Of The Night" (perhaps the album's most dramatically improved song, rescued from a truly terrible studio version on 1989's World In Motion), "Sky Blue And Black" (an graceful ballad from 1993's I'm Alive), "The Night Inside Me" (a more subdued version of an up-tempo rocker from 2002's The Naked Ride Home), and "Casino Nation" (a piece of sharp social commentary from the same 2002 album). In between these songs, Browne reveals himself as an adept conversationalist, telling stories, making jokes, bantering with the audience, and taking requests.

It wouldn't seem right to write a Jackson Browne review without including a few quotes. All of his records, even at their least inspired, are showcases for his poetic gifts, so naturally there's plenty to draw from here. "In The Shape Of A Heart" is among the best examples: "You try so hard / to keep a life from coming apart, / and never know what breaches and faults are concealed / in the shape of a heart." On "The Night Inside Me," Browne looks back on his past: "I used to lay out in a field under the Milky Way / with everything that I was feeling that I could not say, / with every doubt and every sorrow that was in my way / tearing around inside my head like it was there to stay." The politically-themed "Casino Nation" offers poetry of a different sort: "And everywhere, the good prepare for perpetual war, / and let the weapons shape the plan / the way the hammer shapes the hand."

For me, a longtime Jackson Browne listener, the brilliance of the two Solo Acoustic records is a revelation. But if you're not a Jackson Browne fan, or if you've never explored his work because you're put off by his more predictable radio hits like "Doctor My Eyes" and "Running On Empty," please reconsider. The Solo Acoustic albums are the most impressive releases of his career. Don't buy a best-of compilation. Don't start with Late For The Sky, or Running On Empty, or any of the other records you're likely to see recommended. Start here. And, if you like the music as much as I think you will, join me in hoping for Solo Acoustic, Vol. 3.

-Dan Warren

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