For longtime fans of Justin Townes Earle, his current release, The Saint of Lost Causes, will produce a rather uncanny effect. The music sounds familiar, but it’s a different kind of song. Over the course of his eight previous releases, since his 2007 debut Yuma, Earle has charted a remarkably consistent and fascinating career, with not a bad album to his name. The Saint of Lost Causes continues this trajectory. The rhythms, melodies, musicianship, characters, and lyrical quality are all sparkling in this most recent effort, as they were in his 2017 release Kids in the Street.
Looking back, that album seems to have marked a change for Earle. Along with Kids in the Street’s ramped-up playfulness and sense of fun, one former thematic obsession was conspicuous by its absence: the ever-present struggle with “the Father” that dominated Earle’s previous work. Kids in the Street largely abandons such concerns and it marks an important transition in his career.
The Saint of Lost Causes introduces a new spice to replace parental anxiety in the recipe: an angry political imagination. Where much of JTE’s previous artistic output emerges from the psychological battle of escaping his father’s (Steve Earle) formidable shadow, this album’s songs burst forth from a vigorous engagement with contemporary populist politics.
Justin Townes Earle is one of those artists for whom the term “Americana” was invented. As his career has developed, his music has incorporated various, distinct American traditions: country, blues, jazz, folk, most prominently (with a Replacements cover thrown in). This new album continues that established trajectory while adding a few subtle variations. For instance, electric bass lines play a somewhat more prominent role in this album, while the lively horn sections of previous albums like Kids in the Street and Nothing’s Gonna Change the Way You Feel About Me Now are noticeably absent. Overall, however, this album’s style is neatly consistent with Earle’s previous work. What makes the record distinct is the subject matter.
Born to a legendary troubadour, alt-country pioneer Steve Earle, and named after Townes Van Zandt, a certain degree of anxiety of influence is more than understandable and even fully expected in an artist like Justin Townes Earle. Stylistically, the young artist quickly moved beyond his father’s influence after the somewhat derivative Yuma, which finds the young singer stepping firmly into his father’s tradition. Beginning with The Good Life (2008) and particularly with Midnight at the Movies (2009) however, Earle sounds nothing like his father, in voice, style, or subject matter.
Yet like in Hamlet, the father’s ghost haunts the landscape from which he is absent. Like stars circling a black hole, so many of Earle’s characters find themselves resisting the invisible father’s gravity. The classic “Mama’s Eyes” is perhaps the best example of how Earle’s music contends with the specter of Steve Earle; while he admits he is his father’s son, ultimately claims the clarity of moral vision in his mother’s eyes. This vision led to the artistic achievements of the albums that followed. Each focused on people born into troubled relationships with their fathers, yet who were wise enough to resist, or at least resent, those tyrannical figures.
Earle crafted a string of albums in which the feminine influence pushed back against the masculine. As if to emphasize this theme, in an unbroken string of six albums from 2008 to 2015, each of Earle’s albums feature him (or a version of him) with a woman on the cover. And the final two are, surely not by accident, titled Single Mothers (2014) and Absent Fathers (2015).
Where the dramas of those previous albums spring from psychological conflicts of a most personal kind, The Saint of Lost Causes finds a new tyrannical force to rail against: American politics. The result is a feisty, angry album that speaks directly into the structural injustices and inequities of contemporary America.
Earle’s characters have regularly been in crisis or on the move. In songs like “Wandering,” from his 2010 breakthrough album Harlem River Blues, the personal crisis is usually a response to strained parental relationships. Here, characters are thrust into desperation not by the personal, but by the political, giving the album a distinctly Springsteenian feel. The drug dealing, cop-killing main character of “Appalachian Nightmare” is not driven to a life of crime because his father left; he grows up bad because of the poverty caused by his father’s unemployment at the hands of a greedy corporation. The narrator of “Don’t Drink the Water,” (which has a neat partner on the album, the bouncy yet equally furious “Flint City Shake It”) angrily lashes out at the lies spewed by a corporate executive testifying about pollution and environmental destruction in the name of profit, ultimately issuing a threat. “So that man on the stand, he’s still talkin’. No one’s listenin’. Everybody’s watchin’. I swear he just might not make it home tonight.” This is but one of many truly radical political stances this album takes, and it comes as a pleasant development in Earle’s already impressive career.
The title track which opens the album sets the tone for its class politics. Earle’s Saint proclaims, “It’s a cruel world. It ain’t hard to understand. Got your sheep. Got your shepherds, got your wolves among men.” The classes he divides the world into here are pretty straightforward; victims, victimizers, and the good institutions that stand between the two. This understanding of the world fits neatly into the dominant postwar liberal consensus, but Earle does not let it stand for long.
The song immediately proceeds to deconstruct this conventional hierarchy, telling us, “It can be hard to tell. Might find a wolf in shepherd’s clothes. Now and then your gonna find sheep in amongst all those troubled souls.” Here a much more complex picture emerges and begins to throw our political world into chaos. It’s a world in which the line between cop and criminal blurs, forcing us to look with suspicion upon those society deems “good.” Yet it also requires us to look with mercy upon those considered criminal and dangerous. Earle describes a world where the lines around which we define justice have been obliterated.
Driving the point home, the Saint raises a damning rhetorical question: “You know the folks that’s most afraid of the wolf. If you really stop and think, throughout time between a wolf and a shepherd, who you think has killed more sheep?” Here the song (and the subsequent album) abandons a political perspective based on individual virtue and bootstrapping ideology and draws our attention to a fully corrupted system. The victims are victimized not by “bad actors,” but rather by the very authorities that purport to serve them.
This is in no way a conventionally liberal politics, but rather a radical one. Falling in line, the album’s second cut, the toe-tapping blues “Ain’t Got No Money,” rejects the remedies of inspirational liberalism, repeating “Ain’t got no money, baby. Give me some money. Don’t want your honey, I can make my own.” Here, grand notions of hope and change are rejected for simple wealth redistribution.
The systematic critique extends into race relations as well in “Over Alameda.” Here the desperate poverty of the characters is rooted in a distinctly institutional form of racism. The family is not poor because of individual bigots but economic inequalities, and the class divide that holds them back from the pleasant life in Alameda, “where the white folks live.”
Politics permeate this album. So much so that even in songs like “Frightened By the Sound,” which would have sounded perfectly at home on Absent Fathers (that mournful, pining steel guitar!), both thematically and in instrumentation, one finds a deeply political motive. The refrain, “Storm comin’. No way it’s gonna miss us now,” might have referred to the consequences of a wayward life on Earle’s earlier albums. In the context of this record, however, one cannot help but see politics hovering just out of frame. The line “Last time the rain come down like this, so much was lost, we’ll never know the true cost,” eerily brings to mind to the financial crash of 2007 and its human toll. The lamented coming storm, therefore, represents a hard lesson unlearned, not by a flawed individual this time, but by society as a whole.
The Saint of Lost Causes finds Justin Townes Earle embarking on a bold and unexpected new direction. Earle has found a way to take his many gifts as a singer, guitarist, and songwriter and aim them finally away from the personal and toward the political, as the poets of America’s traditional music always have. It leaves the listener in great anticipation for where this might lead.
Justin Townes Earle’s new album, The Saint of Lost Causes, is out now on New West Records.
Tennis System – Lovesick
This is furious noise
It is impossible to read music that taps into the shoegaze lineage without finding mention of My Bloody Valentine or The Jesus and Mary Chain. While the aforementioned bands are certainly the epicentre of the genre, bands like Los Angeles’ Tennis System aren’t all too interested in being just another page in the Kevin Shields songbook. Unlike the genre’s progenitors, Tennis System only graze the often plodding, overly moribund nature of shoegaze, and instead find more inspiration from uptempo punk urgency. Lovesick, their third album, is a culmination of what the band call their “putting it all on the line” mentality, wrapped in fuzzed-out, loud guitars, breezy percussion work and that ‘let’s go’ punk attitude.
Songs like “Alone” and “Esoteric” come cut from the same mold that crafted early emo band Cap N’ Jazz; manic, loud, frenzied, while opener “Shelf Life” digs deep into the fuzzy, distorted heaven of Jawbox meets Burning Airlines. The song itself feverish sudden changes, one that mimics what vocalist/guitarist Matty Taylor told Flood Magazine about the song’s “journey of realization, denial, and finally acting upon things”. It’s true then that songs on Lovesick owe more to J. Robbins than Kevin Shields, but it is not to say the album is not without its more shoegaze moments. It’s the moodier soundscapes of “Cologne” and almost whispering “Fall” that paint from that brush.
The album’s strongest outing is the terrific “Turn”. It is a song that is a well constructed effort combining early emo and elements of shoegaze with the furious noise of guitar powered alternative/punk, packing together all the best qualities of the band in alluring freneticism.
As the title track closes proceedings, the listener is left with a sense of aural delight that came with albums like Loveless, or Trail of Dead’s brilliant Source Tags & Codes. It doesn’t mean to say Lovesick is a trailblazing record, but what it does mean is that the album’s tightly wound energy and furiousness explodes in euphoric delight- even if it is temporary. In the song “Lovesick”, Taylor sings, “please don’t let me burn out”… and perhaps, with this much aural euphoria, it is inevitable. But as the saying goes, “it’s better to burn out…”
Pom Pom Squad – Ow EP
The latest EP by this Brooklyn four-piece is beautiful vulnerability
Brooklyn “quiet grrl” band Pom Pom Squad may have a cute moniker and description of their sound, but like their riot grrl brethren that it comes from, it’s anything but tame. Pom Pom Squad is a four-piece led by vocalist and songwriter Mia Berrin, who on their second EP, have taken the twinkly sounds of Rilo Kiley and Mitski and injected it with the grungy, manic energy of Hole and Bif Naked and the distorted, punk urgency of Bratmobile.
Ow stands out from the opening “Ow (Intro)”, a song of delicate heartbreak that is both pensive and biting. It’s mostly just Berrin and her guitar, sparkling in a glow of Midwestern emo-esque strings and her voice. The song is beautifully wistful when it sings “he says he wants what’s best for me” and biting when it comes back and says “they all say they want what’s best for me / but they never try to be the best for me”. It’s from this you hear the strength of the EP; that when it gets a little brooding, melancholy, pained, it’s also gorgeous, vulnerable and definitely unafraid to show the listener honesty and character.
In songs like “Heavy Heavy” and “Honeysuckle”, Pom Pom Squad get a little dirtier, a little grungier, amping up the distortion and sludgier percussion work. The hazy bellowing of “Heavy Heavy” adds to the angry introspection of the song; its lines of “It’s getting heavy heavy / Telling everybody that I’m fine / I’m feeling heavy heavy does it mean / I wanna fucking die?” painted by lusciously loud guitar work that would make Steve Albini smile. “Honeysuckle” takes on a similar pained look inside the mind but with a more fuzzed-out, alternative-rock veneer. Berrin’s lyrics come across as vividly as she sings “If I’m nothing without you am I anything at all?” It’s songs like these, with words like these, that hint of comparisons between Pom Pom Squad’s captivating allure with that of Courtney Love and Babes in Toyland during their heydey.
“Cherry Blossom” taps into that beautiful sorrow again, plugging into the aura that is painted when it is just Berrin and her guitar again. It’s almost hypnotic at times, and just as quickly as the tension and the magnetism builds, it ends. The anger of the album works because unlike angst, it’s calculated and targeted, leaving Ow as much of a substantial outing as it is growth from their 2018 EP Hate It Here. The only real downside to Ow are some moments like on the closing notes of “Cut My Hair”- a song that builds up to its crescendo with more dazzling vulnerability but ends a little quicker than it ought to. In truth, that’s the only real con of the EP, that when the orchestral fade-out of “Owtro” howls away, you’re left searching for more, with only repeated listens as your respite. But in the end, what could be better for an artist you’ve recently discovered than to get under your skin and leave you wanting more?