Todd Snider gives hope to smartasses everywhere, putting the hoot in hootenanny as he lives by his wit.
Near Truths and Hotel Rooms is a spin through the songbook Snider has built over a decade and shows, in the very best sense of the word, what a fine entertainer he is. Recorded in a half-dozen favorite venues, it’s just Snider, his guitar and harmonica.
If making people laugh was all he could do, Snider wouldn’t be as good as he is. What’s special is how he makes you care about the twisted heroes and (somewhat) regular folks who stumble through his songs. He serves it up in a slightly nasal voice that cracks around the edge, following his own path through country traveled by John Prine and early Bob Dylan.
Like them, he’s a storyteller. “D.B. Cooper” celebrates the skyjacker who parachuted from a jet, leaving you to hope he got away. “The Ballad of the Devil’s Backbone Tavern” is about a Texas beer joint run by Miss Virg, who serves free beer and advice. The few patrons actually paying attention hate folk singers, but it’s a place where you’d want to tilt more than a few.
Snider can deliver a slow, sad song, too, such as one recounting a “Long Year,” one watching that “Lonely Girl” and “Waco Moon,” where he tells of hunting the grave of drug-dead musician friend Eddie Shaver.
Interspersed are stories of how the songs came to be, including five and half minutes about “Devil’s Backbone Tavern” that involve Luckenbach, Texas, sleeping on a couch, a buddy named Trog and much humor. Also bringing home the live feel is his tendency to tear off verses of other songs, like slipping into “It’s Only Rock n Roll (But I Like It)” during “Easy Money.”
Snider’s most Dylan-like songs are among his wittiest. On “Statistician Blues,” a ream of statistics reveal how they make us feel like a number but tell us little. His most famous tune, “Talking Seattle Grunge Rock Blues,” skewers that ’90s scene and how attitude trumped talent. “Side Show Blues”—with harp, madly strummed guitar, whooping vocals and lines like “It’s hard to kick the door down when you ain’t got no shoes”—is his “Motorpscyho Nightmare.”
Near Truths does what a live album should, making a listener wish he’d been there, riding shotgun through Snider’s amusing world.