Since about the mid-’90s, playing the “heartland rock” card has become a bit of a netless tightrope walk. Not only has the ascent of No Depression from budget-conscious magazine to virtual genre Bible exposed a lot of roots players as insincere hacks, the entrenchment of the hardcore blues community additionally meant that if a musician steered too far away from Stevie Ray or John Lee and too close to Bruce or John Cougar, they didn’t wanna hear about it.

But what, after all, can a po’ boy do ’cept to sing for a rock ’n’ roll band? Well, you can sell your soul to the highest megacorp and churn out schlocky, BoDeans-like “heartland” fluff, or you can settle into a comfortable niche, damn the labels. By doing the latter with his band The Houserockers for over two decades now, Pittsburgh’s Joe Grushecky has risked coming to be viewed as a rock relic (not to mention suffering those cynics who sneered at his longtime friendship, and occasional team-up, with Springsteen), and it’s logical to assume that at some points he may have questioned his own motivations.

Fingerprints, then, while not totally divorced from 1998’s Coming Home and the ’99 live set Down the Road Apiece, is a conscious effort to shake things up a bit — not the least of which includes billing it as a solo album — no “and The Houserockers” on the sleeve. It’s a winning mix of classic Grushecky and unexpected detours. Three key tracks are served up from the git-go: the Houserockers-like cruncher “You and Tonight” (nice chord progression nod to “I’m Not Your Steppin’ Stone”); the autobiographical “I Remember It,” which, over a Tom Pettyish arrangement, perfectly details a boy’s life inspired by guitars, Cadillacs, pretty girls and AM radio; and the moodily anthemic title track, nominally a tribute to Grushecky’s coal miner pop that extends the titular metaphor to suggest how individual lives get intertwined with others’. Elsewhere, Grushecky touches on smoky Memphis soul (“Lucky Man”), lush Bacharach-styled balladry (“Rainy Day in Pittsburgh” — with strings!) and romantic Southwestern rock (“Spanish Blood”), but his stylistic shifts seem absolutely natural, betraying no hints of the dreaded “aging rocker new direction angst” syndrome. If Grushecky ’02 represents the current face of heartland rock, the form’s in more than just good hands — it sounds downright refreshed and vital.

E-mail Fred Mills at [email protected].

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