Steve Earle Washington Square Serenade (New West)

Since relocating to New York City in 2005 with his wife, country singer Allison Moorer, Steve Earle has become a mini "King of All Media": He's the host of his own Sirius radio show, an actor on HBO's The Wire, an esteemed playwright and a published author, and, yes, still one of roots music's preeminent practitioners. Produced by John King of the Dust Brothers and recorded at NYC's famed Electric Lady Studios, Earle's first album in three years feels like a postcard from his new city. It opens with "Tennessee Blues," a kiss-off to his longtime home base of Nashville, a place the rebellious and iconoclastic singer clearly never felt comfortable in ("Fare thee well, I'm bound to roam … Goodbye, Guitar Town," he sings, referencing his 1986 ode to Music City, "Guitar Town"). The balance of the disc is much as you might expect: a collection of finely etched story songs in the mold of Earle's late mentor, Texas wordsmith Townes Van Zandt, with music that offers spare folk-pop arrangements spiced up with modern backbeats and world-music flourishes. Though Earle's first few postcomeback albums, including 1995's Train a Comin' and 1996's I Feel Alright, were models of efficiency - there was nary a wasted note, breath, or thought - his more recent work has been occasionally uneven. The new disc is no exception, as it reveals its share of duds, namely the beat-poet exercise "Down Here Below" and the rather pedestrian entry "Satellite Radio." Still, those few missteps are made up for elsewhere. Like his pal Bruce Springsteen, Earle pays heartfelt homage to folk legend Pete Seeger with "Steve's Hammer (For Pete)" and the closing combination of "Days Aren't Long Enough" (a gorgeous duet with Moorer). Those two songs, and his version of Tom Waits's "Way Down in the Hole," a menacing postmodern take on fire-and-brimstone gospel, are more than enough to redeem the record. - Bob Mehr