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This has already been a helluva year for don’t-give-a-shit Texan Joe Ely. On The Horse Whisperer soundtrack, the crooner hooked up with old pals Jimmie Dale Gilmore and Butch Hancock and reformed the Flatlanders, a trio of Lubbock-born cowboys who released one album in 1972 then promptly parted ways for solo careers. If the outcome of that reunion isn’t impressive enough—”South Wind of Summer” is a gorgeous, slow-gallop adios to youth—Ely’s 15th studio album, Twistin’ in the Wind, comes along as one of his sharpest, most palatable to date. Ely, who toured with the Clash in 1980, mixes Tex-Mex twang and branny rock ‘n’ roll to create a slick y’alternative sound. Still relishing his role as the hungover balladeer, Ely, who has a penchant for tough people and tough fates, shows a rare compassion for folks straddling the line between comedy and tragedy. Album opener “Up on the Ridge,” which showcases the dueling chops of steel guitarist Lloyd Maines and flamenco guitarist Teye, tells the tale of an aging wrangler staring down death at every turn; Ely, however, lets this rebel live to see another sunrise, and the song’s finale is a furious, uplifting ride back to the ranch. With the voice of a weathered border bartender, Ely can also turn romance tunes like “Gulf Coast Blues” and “I Will Lose My Life” into much more than lonesome last-call throwaways. Once again, the Lone Star loner has created perfect mood music to read Cormac McCarthy by—only this time, the endings are more sweet than bitter, and troubled heroes die old.—Sean Daly