Americana literati Rodney Crowell continues down the path blazed by his previous three records with ''Sex & Gasoline''. Crowell bounded onto the music landscape in 1988 with the Top 40 crossover album ''Diamonds and Dirt'', which produced an astonishing five number one singles and a Grammy Award for the single 'After All This Time.' As part of Emmylou Harris' original Hot Band, Crowell's musical pedigree is unquestionable, at one time even earning him the right to remake Johnny Cash's singular 'Ring of Fire' with Cash himself singing Rodney's reworked melody. With his new album ''Sex & Gasoline'', he continues to write about contemporary themes. ''Sex & Gasoline'' was produced by Joe Henry and contains what Crowell says are, ''some of the best performances I've given to date.'' For the new material Crowell and Henry brought in some of music's most skilled sidemen including Doyle Bramhall II (acoustic and electric guitar), Greg Leisz (acoustic and electric guitar, pedal and lap steel, mandolin, mandocello and dobro), Patrick Warren (piano, pump organ and Chamberlin), David Piltch (upright and electric bass) and Jay Bellerose (drums and percussion).
How many male singer-songwriters have the guts to write, "If I could have just one wish/Maybe for an hour/I'd want to be a woman/And feel that phantom power"? That's what Rodney Crowell does in "The Rise and Fall of Intelligent Design," one of a number of captivating, autobiographical songs on Sex & Gasoline, all of which were inspired by women. If the cartoonish cover photo suggests that females frighten him, the songs bear out an opposite truth, as the album explores--and at times nearly worships--feminine strength. In what nearly amounts to an audio diary, he tracks intimate moments with his wife, daughters, friends, and the women he observes from afar (including a screen goddess in "Moving Work of Art"). Though the lyrical tone ranges from biting and Dylanesque (the title song, about the objectification of women in advertising and the media) to tender and confessional ("Forty Winters"), more often than not, Crowell finds empathy with his subjects, his aching tenor taking on a mellow resolve. (Producer Joe Henry keeps the backing sparse and uncluttered.) Returning from a six-year hiatus in 2001, Crowell pushes himself harder each time out, making his transition from Top 40 hitmaker to Americana god, a rich and powerful journey with no end in sight. -– Alanna Nash