The two records I'd previously heard from this Canadian singer/songwriter left me cold sounded like he embalmed his honky-tonk soul in the arid songpoetry of, oh, let's say Townes Van Zandt. Imagine my surprise, then, when Fred himself showed up on the cover of the live two-discs-that-oughta-be-one Ralph's Last Show, looking like he woke up two minutes before checkout time. Even more surprising, the music has the same disheveled feel. With Washboard Hank on percussion, the spare settings never get the best of the great white-trash tales and the 3 a.m. rasp with which Eaglesmith croaks them out. And for all his square instrumentation and love for his dog, he has more to say about modernity than most indie rockers. He adores trains and cars and always grounds their perceptual challenges in the rhythms of working-class life. But clearly, the man wasn't made for the studio. In the wake of Ralph's Last Show, his latest solo disc, Falling Stars and Broken Hearts (MAPL), reveals that his albums suffer not so much from songpoetic pretensions as blandly professional sound. But that's OK somewhere down the line, another scrappy live disc will rescue the likes of "I Wanna Buy Your Truck" and "Cold War" from the community-college impeccability in which they're presently encased.
Editor's note: The rating for Ralph's Last Show Live In Santa Cruz is an "7," while the rating for Falling Stars And Broken Hearts is a "5."