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.
Crossed Keys – Saviors
Saviors shows the work of well-seasoned musicians finding new energy in old sounds
Philadelphia’s Crossed Keys are an interesting intersection between melodic hardcore and punk, taking an earnest approach to the sound that made its way from the underground in the late 90s and early 2000s. This relatively new outfit is the result of Kid Dynamite and Samiam in a blender- in the best way possible. The Kid Dynamite influence may be a given since Crossed Eyes features KD’s drummer Dave Wagenschutz, but the band’s pedigree also includes members of bands like Zolof the Rock & Roll Destroyer and The Curse, all backing the melancholic vocal work of frontman Joshua Alvarez (Halo of Snakes). So while Crossed Keys are somewhat new, its members have been cutting their teeth within their respective circles for years, and their new EP Saviors shows the work of well-seasoned musicians finding new energy in old sounds.
Saviors is backboned by the furious urgency and energy that Kid Dynamite showed through their history, but while Jason Shevchuk’s vocals were beautifully abrasive, Alvarez takes a more restrained, wistful approach to singing. Songs like the opening “Times of Grace” are musically up-tempo percussions and razor-sharp guitars, but are buoyed by Alvarez’s more melodic vocals. His vocals rest at a good place between Samiam’s Jason Beebout and that NYHC tone exhibited by bands like Token Entry and Grey Area. In songs like “R.J.A” and the closing title track, Crossed Keys find more success with their brand of blistering speed meets harmony- slowing down only for the kind of melancholic punk that made Samiam a noted name. While much of Saviors is built on pace, it wasn’t always this way for the band. In fact, their 2017 EP, I’m Just Happy That You’re Here, leans closer to Samiam than it does to Kid Dynamite (the song “Jeff Pelly vs. The Empire” is particularly fantastic), so there’s been an uptick of urgency with Saviors.
For fans of any of the aforementioned bands here, there is plenty to like with Crossed Keys and plenty to like in Saviors. It’s succinct, to the point, but filled with ample reflection and exploration that gives the EP depth and resonance. Any band that has found influence from Kid Dynamite is most certainly OK by us (this site is named after a KD song after all), but Crossed Keys does more than just tip their cap. This one’s a really good one, and worth your time.
Every last time: Revisiting Gameface’s “How Far Is Goodbye?”
A glorious sound of a time gone by
Southern California’s Gameface were always a band that seemed perfect just below the cusp. Their brand of pop-tinged punk was somewhere in between the melancholy driven emo of the early 1990s to what would become of radio-friendly punk bands evolving from the Jimmy Eat Worlds of the… world.
I loved this band. It was songs like “My Star” and “When You’ve Had Enough” that captured my attention. They didn’t fit in with the punk explosion of the mid-90s and had more melodic chops than those that remained in the underground with bands like Quicksand and Texas is the Reason (the latter being the most musically similar).
To this day, I count their track “How Far Is Goodbye?” as one I can listen to on any given day and still feel the same way about it as I did years ago. It’s a glorious sound of a time gone by, and Jeff Caudill, who has been the backbone of their songwriting since the beginning, has still got the chops his ilk can only dream of. There’s a tinge of melancholy that conjures up a certain sadness, a scene in a movie where the protagonist is making their exit into the distance as the scene closes. Something about the song, the sentiment, and the lyrics that always reminds of driving away while looking at the rear view mirror.
Five years ago Gameface released a new album, Now Is What Matters, an album that perfectly encapsulated their ability to write with emotion, melody, and magnetism that only a select few seem to possess. I interviewed frontman Jeff Caudill before the album came out to chat about the band, an interview I think still holds up. Caudill has been busy since then with a lot of solo material, while the band themselves have been releasing music sporadically (mostly singles) since 2014.
While their catalog is deep, there’s one song I keep coming back to, and that’s “How Far Is Goodbye?”. Originally released on the split 10″ vinyl with Errortype: 11 in 2000, the song received an update in 2018, which you can hear below.
Gameface photo from Gameface facebook page.