Steve Earle – I’ll Never Get Out Of This World Alive

An original album by this now 78 year-old guy, and it’s based on a book that he wrote that I couldn’t get past the first chapter of! I’ll end sentences with whatever I want, I’m just like Churchhill. I personally defeated the not Z’s. To wit, I slept. I’m on a bus through rural Ohio right now. It’s not very exciting. Like Southern Ontario, but greener, more hilly, and more of a constant strip mall, and that’s saying something. And slightly different franchises have populated the countryside. Enjoy your strip mall, Northern America.
Steve does not do subtlety very well. Steve does very well at writing music in interesting genres – call and answer celtic, rockabilly, bluegrass, acoustic folksy bluesy things, and all filtered through his gruff old American man-isms. The lack of subtlety is made significantly more tolerable (even welcome) by its interpretation as Woody Guthrie-esque writing about modern events. Really, it’s fine to date yourself if you do it willingly, and why should the flooding of New Orleans and the Mexican oil spill not deserve a song, if the Grand Coolee Dam deserves one? Of course, the song that’s about what a jerk George W. Bush is sounds dated already, but them’s the breaks.
I’m sorry for not liking your book, Steve, but it’s a really cool title!
The problem, like with a few of Steve’s albums, is that beneath his majestic beard and stringy balding hair he only had half an album of good songs in him, and they’re lined up right at the start. Kinda like when he was a young heroin-addicted man, really. Kinda like this song-writing thing is hard or something! After the groovy (though kinda go-nowhere) opener “Waitin’ For The Sky,” aforementioned anti-Republican “Little Emperor,” excellent celtic rockers (songs with fiddles, not violins) “Gulf Of Mexico” and “Molly O”, though the former is far better, things hit a serious snag. First there’s a nice folk song that’s unfortunately about faith in god (more on that later), then there’s a cool Tom Waits-like harmonica and weird percussion job, then there’s four boring nothing slabs of obvious tales about obvious people, being boringly in love or roaming around, without any musical hooks to make their tales interesting. Then there’s a song about how New Orleans is going to be a-okay, and it’s a bit hokey. Steve’s an older man! Way over half dead! An intelligent, well-meaning old man, but he can’t help sliding into kindly grandfather mode just a bit.
And that song about god, “God Is God.” I just can’t. See, it should be a nice song, and it shouldn’t matter that I am not a man with faith (to be exact I see faith – the act of believing without reason – to be at the top of my list of god-free sins), when I enjoy songs about so many experiences I have not personally had that there’s no point in starting to list them. But but but, this one in particular I can’t abide by without wanting to throw my iPod under the bus’ wheels at the next rest stop. “I believe in prophecy.” Why, Steve, why? Nostradamus was a fraud and Joseph told parables. There has literally never been a true prophet, but many thousands of false ones. Many of them have led tribes and cities into bloody conflicts that would have been otherwise avoided. “Even money is telling me that it’s in God I must trust.” Clever line and all, but a couple nights ago I watched a shell land amidst a bunch of fighters in some Middle Eastern country, and there was blood everywhere, and all they kept yelling was “Allahu Akhbar!” over and over, and that’s just a more dramatic, less poetic way of saying that it’s in god they trust too, and it isn’t your god, Steve. Which isn’t a good argument for atheism (others have done that well enough for me), but it’s enough to explain why I have trouble listening to a nice old white man talking about his faith, wondering if he’s going to go all Dostoevsky on me next album. Religiosity is something that I’ve spent my adult life associating with backhanded charities, foreign wars, and my father’s disappointment. It’s a real buzzkill when you were all excited because one of your heroes is still sorta killing it at age 53 or whatever.
A low 7, and only because the filler is still filled with nice finger picking and a lady that sounds a lot like Emmylou Harris, and because anyone who makes Pontchartrain rhyme can always take another little piece of my godless heart.

7 / 10

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Steve Earle – Townes

I don’t know what it is. Maybe it’s the fact that he’s recorded an entire tribute album to him, maybe it’s the fact that he named his first born son “Townes,” maybe it’s that interview where he said “Townes Van Zandt is the best songwriter ever, and I’ll stand on Bob Dylan’s coffee table in my cowboy boots and say it”, but I get the feeling that Steve Earle is a fan of Townes Van Zandt. Maybe not, I don’t know, it’s just a hunch I’ve had for a while.
Tribute albums are a funny thing. HAHAHAHAHAHAHAHA. AAAAAAAAAAAHHHHH HAHHAHAHAHAAHA because it’d hard not to think you’re getting a poor facsimile of a greatest hits collection. It probably helps not to know most of the original songs, like I don’t, so I’m able to evaluate them based only on my frayed mental state and not expectations of what the songs “should” sound like. Certainly the two songs I knew well beforehand (“Pancho and Lefty” and “Don’t You Take It Too Bad”) come across as distinctly unlikeable given the greatness of the originals – just lazy really – but the rest of the songs are distinctly likeable!

It does help to know that TVZ was a povertylicious, depressed, alcoholic singing-songwriting maven, with lots of pathos and diehard fans to his name. Adds a nice patina of misery to all the songs here. It becomes such that every song is the blues, even when it’s not all that bloozy. TVZ was the real deal: a Southern couchsurfing gambler with a huge hole in his heart and a fondness for fortified wine, someone to whom the concept of “selling out” was laughable – he wanted money but nobody was willing to give it to him. But yeah, the songs. It’s like a good Steve Earle album, with few weaknesses aside from the lazers I mentioned above! There are a few generic blues numbers, a lot of acoustic pickers, The main thing to notice here is the quality of the acoustic guitar riffs throughout. They aren’t overly catchy, but they are enjoyable. The other is the simple, lovely lyrics, too self-involved and simply sad to have come from Early Steve (at least a whole album worth). The best example of this is the simperingly-titled “To Live is to Fly” but Christ on a stick, the cocksucking lyrics! “Living’s mostly wasting time / And I waste my share of mine / It never feels too good / So let’s not take too long” BWAH. “Days up and then they come / Like rain on a conga drum / Forget most remember some” CRY CRY CRY. And this is a fucking love song! “I miss the system here / The bottom’s low and the treble’s clear / But it don’t pay to think too much / On the things you left behind” SIGH SIGH CRY Sigh. “We all got holes to fill / Them holes are all that’s real / Some fall in like a stone / Sometimes you dig your own” AWW COME ON CRY.

At least that’s how I feel. Most of the songs aren’t that good, of course.

8/10

Steve Earle – Washington Square Serenade

So dude’s pretty old and he does what had been coming for a long time and he leaves Nashville for New York and he loves it there a little so much, so much so that he basically writes an album about it. I’m all hopped up on the excitement of being about to listen to someone else for the first time in over a month, but this album has far too much picking at notes quietly and not nearly enough strumming and hooks, and this on top of far too many drum loops and such.

So he’s farther than ever from the stuff that I love, and this coming from someone who loves New York, but so many songs are written about it that you have to do more than observe that life goes on even though it’s big. The thematic heart of the album is tracks four and five, “City of Immigrants,” the best of the New York songs, with some genuinely inspired lyrics about the city (but also some silly fluting), and “Sparkle and Shine” a ridiculously cute love song that’s a bit creepy coming out of a 50-year-old man but alright, hey, Steve Earle probably gets girls pretty enough to write songs over. The other real highlights are Tom Waits cover “Way Down in the Hole,” to which Steve adds an above-average rock-jazz lilt and some hokey backing vocals, and the undeniably cool “Oxycontin Blues,” which succeeds in spite of being a bit thin.

But yeah, the least inspired original album since “El Corazon.” There’s too much bland filler and eyeroll material. “Sparkle and Shine” though, why I love me some “Sparkle and Shine.”

5/10

Steve Earle – Live at the Grey Fox Bluegrass Festival (With the Bluegrass Dukes)

See, I’m far more partial to this because while live acoustic albums from singer-songwriters are so common you might have to check around to find an old-timer without one, live bluegrass albums are rarer than a really uncommon thing.

So it’s pretty well bootleg quality, recorded somewhere where you can here a decent amount of crowd chatter. It’s recorded at some festival in New York, I presume, as Steve says that he moved to the city in order to go somewhere where he could see “a mixed-race same-sex couple holding hands; makes me feel safer,” so the crowd’s quite receptive to his peacenik songs while still loving that it’s bluegrass. I like bluegrass too, just not as much, so it works.

It’s heavy on songs from his bluegrass album and the recent peacenik albums, with a few traditionals and a couple songs written by members of the band thrown in. The album songs don’t get any better for being live and the non-bluegrass songs suffer a bit for being bluegrassed, but the traditionals are the best part of the deal. Well, that and hearing Steve’s charming stories (one of which he reproduces verbatim from “Just An American Boy”) and listening to the only Steve Earle album ever where the biggest crowd pop is for the barn-stomping “Carrie Brown.”

Speaking of which, let me tell this true story from when I was a kid, and I hope I haven’t told it elsewhere on the site. I may have, because it’s such a silly story. I was at this hoedown when I was seven or eight, in this barn in the country. See, my dad moved to the country when I was four or five, so I spent a good amount of time out there. It was quite the hoedown, with a live bluegrass band and dancing old people and, most importantly, the most kickass tire swing that swung from one rafter to another. It swung fast, and high, and scary, and I wanted to do nothing but ride it over and over. So I did as much as I could, for as long as I could. Until at some point the music stopped, and my dad and stepmom came and got me and told me someone had died. And sure enough, an 87-year-old man had suffered a sudden and fatal heart attack while dancing and was dead before he hit the ground. And so I saw my first dead body. The ambulance that showed up didn’t bother with CPR, the guy was too far gone. So it was a sombre atmosphere for all involved. Except me, who sneaked off to go on the tire swing again. Dad was pretty mad when he caught me and dragged me to the car, but I was just a kid! And that’s the story.

So I mean, yeah, great, but I recommend “The Mountain” by a mile.

7/10

Steve Earle – Live at Montreaux 2005

But not all the time. This is acoustic Steve, just him and his geetar and his harmonickey and obviously singing, but it’s not correct. Now, normalcy I likey my acoustic songs, see my review of that album with Townes and Guy, but Steve’s not one of them. I like his band too much, and I’m highly partial to his louder songs. The acoustic ones that I do love – “Goodbye” and “Tom Ames’ Prayer” to name a couple, are not here. Instead the material’s heavy on the anti-war and social justice-y ones, which sound especially hackneyed in this setting, especially with Steve sounding like he’s rushing through too much of the material here.

I don’t know, Steve’s much, much more than an aging hippie Dylan wannabe, and that’s what he seems like here. The best songs aren’t here, he sounds understandably tired of playing the old stuff (he should really give “Copperhead Road” a break from being the big crowd-pleaser every time). Luckily, this was just a minor catalogue note, so we can get back to Steve being great.

There is, mind you, one great, great moment here: it comes at the end of “Condi, Condi,” the funny love song to Condoleeza Rice (not a protest song at all). At the end he hells “I love that bitch!” then immediately jumps into the next song. Ahh, what a moment. Unfortunately the next song is “The Mountain,” which really misses its bluegrass band. Right then, move along.

4/10

Steve Earle – The Revolution Starts Now

Y’know what’s funny about Steve Earle? He totally lived his life stages in reverse. He started off as a country singer, singin’ about being a “good ol’ boy” and finding jobs and being a hillbilly, then his addiction stage was in the middle as it should be, and then being a young-sounding radical, raging against government and war. It’s cute.

So yeah, this album is at heart an anti-war, anti-Bush album, regrettably released to influence voters in 2004, not effectively enough. So the anti-war songs, good as they generally are, are rather quaint and sad in retrospect. Not bad, again, just…a little pathetic and weak with the benefit of hindsight and a few years. But this is motherfucking Steve Earle, and he doesn’t let that ruin the album. The best parts are the parts where the self-awareness kicks in and stops things from being taken too seriously. The best two are just moments, first where the over-the-top line “the revolution starts…Now!” segues into the rockabilly truck driver song “Home to Houston”. It’s quite awesome. And then the reggae-ish ditty “Condi, Condi,” instead of a polemic is a tongue-in-cheek song of desire for everyone’s favourite former chief of staff (as in “oh Condi Condi / precious as can be / Bet you never had another lover like me”). There’s even a boring generic love song near the end, like every one of Steve’s collections of melodywords. Really keeps things from getting too sad and keeps the album together.

So yeah, the anti-war songs, “Rich Man’s War,” with its equivalence of American and Muslim soldiers, and the surprisingly ass-eating spoken word song “Warrior” and the two nearly identical iterations of the title track don’t hold up to time, but they’re held together by the growing songs “The Seeker” and duet “Comin’ Around.” Plus there’s a patriotic (!) punk (!!) song “F the CC” (as in “Fuck the FCC / Fuck the FBI / Fuck the CIA / I’m living in the mother fucking USA”) to surprise my expectations by not being too much of a “statement.” Steve wanted to influence the election, sure, but it doesn’t come at the cost of the album, something too many singer-songwriters couldn’t boast.

So don’t view this for what it was, view it for what it is now. The revolution did not start then, but we can get some good songs out of it. There’s artistic growth and a sense of humour in this. Grandeur in this view of life and such. Viva Earle!

8/10

Steve Earle – Live From Austin, Texas

Another live album, but this time from way earlier in Steve’s career, just after the release of his second album, back when Steve was just a gifted country singer and none of the addictions and politics had made things all complicated.

And uncomplicated is a good way to describe the performance, just Steve and a few Dukes on basic instruments, just playing a song and then playing the next song. There’s very little nonsense. No banter or jamming or long gaps for applause. It’s a totally different kind of show from a totally different time to a totally different crowd. Totally. They play most of “Guitar Town,” then they do a great cover of “State Trooper” (by JUICE SPRINGSTEEN if you remember that or by Bruce Springsteen otherwise), then they play most of “Exit 0.” Then there are a couple encores, including lone non-album track “The Devil’s Right Hand” and that’s it. The audience is pretty muted, but certainly appreciative. Yes, Steve was just a singer from Texas at this time.

And while it’s a nice little document, aside from “State Trooper” that one needs, aside from understanding how he could omit “Someday” while playing every other song from his first album, including ballsackosaurus “Little Rock ‘N’ Roller” or how he could have had three songs about being a successful singer before he was one, like how rappers release first singles about how much money they have. A couple songs lose something for the limited available instruments – “My Old Friend the Blues” and “Think It Over,” while many  of the songs from the second album sound more interesting here, maybe because Steve hadn’t played them for quite as long as the ones from the first.

Which brings me to my closing thingajew: listening to this rote performance I really feel for musicians on touring, singing the same songs the same way over and over and over and making a pittance for it. Then if you do make it…grapes, can you imagine how many times Steve’s played “Copperhead Road” if it was on his next album and he’s still playing it in at least 2004? Steve sounds reserved here, like he’s saving his energy for a long tour just past or just ahead. “You can either get through life or you can live it,” Steve says before “Fearless Heart,” “and to live it you need two things – an inquisitive mind and a fearless heart.” Aww! And that would be all of his personality we would ever see. Now, I’m a political guy and all, but it’s refreshing to hear a show that’s just a show, before the failed efforts to end the war and elect John Kerry. It isn’t actually “better” because hearing from musicians is usually great, when it’s not realizing that Charlie Daniels thinks “The Devil Went Down To Georgia” is a true story, but he sounds innocent here, even as a man my age on all sorts of dope.

If I’d been at this show I would have been sure to yell out for “Copperhead Road” over and over. Maybe it’d give him an idea.

7/10