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Justin Townes Earle’s The Saint of Lost Causes: Trading Daddy Issues for Radical Politics

The Saint of Lost Causes finds Justin Townes Earle embarking on a bold and unexpected new direction

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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.

Interviews

Like a Hurricane: An Interview with Year of the Fist

Year of the Fist are a much needed short in the arm of rock music. We chat to vocalist/guitarist Squeaky.

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Oakland based rock n’ roll band Year of the Fist are the kind of the rock n’ roll band you can’t bring home to meet mom. Evoking the sounds made famous by labels like Sympathy for the Record Industry, Year of the Fist are “a hurricane of swirling rock n’ roll poundage”. Unrelenting and visceral, their music is the unforgiving wave in a sea of safe rock music; a sentiment best exemplified by their brand new full-length album, Revive Me. And like the title itself, Year of the Fist are a much-needed shot of energy; raw, no-frills, and urgent.

We caught up with guitarist and vocalist Squeaky, who, along with the band, have just returned from a short trek through California and Nevada to showcase their new album. We talk about the history of the band, their fantastic new record, Oakland, small-town shows, and rock n’ roll.

Congrats on the new record- reception has been positive to it (we loved it)- how do you all feel?

We are all very happy with the way the album turned out. The last year and a half working on felt like an eternity but it’s done and I am stoked.

How did the writing and recording for the record go? It sounds fantastic- did you self-produce or work with someone in the studio?

The album is self-produced and the recording was a multi-step and studio process.  We were lucky to work in some amazing studios with some terrific engineers.

Do you have a favorite song from the new record? Or maybe one you all love playing live in particular?

I believe I can speak for everyone when I say “Ghosts” is one of our favorites off this album to play live. And speaking for myself, “Red Lights Flash” is another one I really like playing. 

Revive Me is your third full length; what were some of the things you wanted to get done with this record- things maybe you learned from the two LPs prior?

It is actually of 2nd full length. In between the two, we released a 4 song EP.  To be honest, I always have an idea in my head on how I am going to approach something and it never works that way. There is always a curveball, an emotion, a gut feeling that pulls you a different direction. So I am trying to get better at going into something with no direction to be honest ….. we’ll see how that works out.

You are based in Oakland- are you guys all from the area and how did Year of the Fist come together?

Our lead guitarist, Katie, is the only member from the Bay Area. I am from the East Coast. Our drummer, Hal, is from the Mid-West and our bassist, Serge, is from Russia. Hal & I met on tour in different bands, I believe sometime in 2006. He lived in Washington and I was in California. Hal eventually moved down to Oakland and we started YOTF in 2011. We anticipated it being a 2 piece band but after writing the first few songs we knew that wasn’t going to be the case. I knew Katie from playing shows throughout the Bay Area,  so she jumped on board, then skip ahead 8 years, we found our bassist, Serge. We played with several bass players over the years but now I feel we have found our fit. Serge was one of us within minutes of meeting him.

Do you remember what your first experience with rock n’ roll was? Was it a show, something on the radio, a record, or a band?

I was raised in a rock n roll household so I don’t recall a 1st experience, my upbringing was the experience. As far as going to punk shows, I was living in Richmond, VA and I went to my first punk show at 12 or 13. I was immediately drawn to the energy. I was already playing guitar but after seeing a hundred punks packed into a tiny, sweaty club and feeding off the energy coming off the stage I knew I wanted to be the one on the stage.

What makes Oakland a good place for a rock n’ roll band? Is it the venues, the community?

Oakland has its ups and down with good punk venues to be honest. It seems we will have a ton of good rock venues for a few years and then it takes a nosedive for a few years. It’s tricky like that. Oakland is such a diverse city it keeps every band from being full of a bunch of white straight men. It’s a breath of fresh air.

And some of you pull double duty in multiple bands?

We sure do. Hal & I are in a 2 piece rock band called Cut-Rate Druggist while Katie has a solo project that goes by her name, Katie Cash, and a rock/funk band called Skip The Needle. Serge is the only smart one by not burning the candle at both ends.

You played a bunch of shows in July- across California and then to Nevada- what are some of the things you enjoy most about being able to play these songs live?

We just wrapped up that quick 4-day run and it was terrific. There is nothing like seeing people singing the words you wrote, seeing their body move to a particular part in a song that makes your body move the same way, to have someone tell you how much a song means to them. It is so therapeutic. It is the best shrink that I have ever had.

I used to live in Stockton; it was a tough place when I lived there. But it was always exciting to know bands stopped by (when they did)- how important it is to you guys to find new cities and towns to play in each tour?

Really? You lived in Stockton? What a small world!! 

I really enjoy playing smaller cities/towns. The crowd isn’t as jaded as big cities. I don’t mean that as an insult, hell, I am probably one of those jaded people. Living in a big city you can see awesome local and touring bands any day of the week, it gets taken for granted. When you go to a smaller city that has 2, maybe 1 rock show a month, people appreciate that you drove 4-6 hours to get there.

What are the plans for Year of the Fist for the rest of the year and beyond?

We have some light US touring in the fall along with playing FEST in Gainesville, FL. And maybe getting some rest!

Year of the Fist’s new album Revive Me is available now via Heart On Records.

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Reviews

Pretty Vicious – Beauty of Youth

Beauty of Youth is what happens when raw talent and a knack for writing great songs finds itself surviving the hype

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Pretty Vicious

The perils of industry hype and stardom have been unforgiving for many young bands. The brutal nature of the rock n’ roll whirlwind is both an inescapable thrill, and the overdose that has claimed the scalp of many. Welsh rock band Pretty Vicious are no stranger to the often destructive nature of record label glory and lofty expectations. The band members were mere teens (15-17) when they signed their mega-deal with Virgin EMI in 2015. What followed was a roller coaster ride of failed recording sessions and the burden of unmet expectations that come with signing big-money deals at such a young age. But the remarkable truth is, Pretty Vicious seem to have come out of the industry slog having survived their initial foray into the fire with an album that is quite a remarkable achievement.

Initially touted as the “next Oasis”, Pretty Vicious have thankfully shunned that tag and done away with writing the next Definitely Maybe for something more visceral. Beauty of Youth is what happens when raw talent and a knack for writing great songs finds itself surviving the hype. If Beauty Of Youth is a record signaling Pretty Vicious’ convalescence after their initial break down, then please, feed this medicine to all the bands.

There is no Oasis, but rather the furious, feverish unpredictability of rock music that we had seen with early Biffy Clyro, early Idlewild, packed with the dangerous uncertainty that came with The Libertines. It’s immediate too; from the raucous riff-heavy opener “These Four Walls” to the vagabond “What Could’ve Been”, much of the album channels frenzied palettes of distortion and beautiful noise. “Force of Nature” is a little Josh Homme, while “Someone Just Like You” is what Dave Grohl sounds like when he’s trying, but the album’s best moment is perhaps the gorgeous, slow-burning “Playing With Guns”. A song that’s composed of great wistful melodies that slowly incinerate the ears with infectious songwriting that makes Beauty Of Youth sound massive while being personal at the same time.

You can’t go past songs like “Move”, with its buzzsaw guitars and wall of energy, without thinking of all the best rock bands we’ve heard over the past decade. It’s got it all- to a T- but its urgency and hectic nature make it feel all the better. “Something Worthwhile” has got the bright lights and big stages of Glastonbury written all over it. And while their 2015 stint at the festival saw them on the “Introducing…” stage, this song is headlining main stage material.

It is quite an achievement to be as accomplished as Pretty Vicious at such a young age. Even more remarkable that they’ve survived the industry machine to release such a damn good debut album. Beauty of Youth is a composed, compelling, high energy debut that answers the question, “what became of the likely lads?”. They went on to write one of, if not the best, rock records of 2019.

(Big Machine / John Varvatos Records)

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