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Steve's hammer

October 19, 2007 | Page 9

Steve Earle, Washington Square Serenade, New West Records, 2007

JACK TRUDELL reviews a new album by political musician and songwriter Steve Earle.

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One of these days I'm gonna lay this hammer down,
Leave my burden restin' on the ground.
When the air don't choke ya, and the ocean's clean
And kids don't die for gasoline,
One of these days I'm gonna lay this hammer down.

-- "Steve's Hammer (for Pete)"

"IS STEVE Earle America's Greatest Living Songwriter?" asked the British Independent newspaper following the release of his latest album Washington Square Serenade.

Earle himself answered a similar question years ago in favor of his mentor, Townes Van Zandt, saying "(He's) the best songwriter in the whole world, and I'll stand on Bob Dylan's coffee table in my cowboy boots and say that."

But 10 years after Van Zandt's death, one thing is clear: Steve Earle is America's foremost political songwriter. While musicians from Pink to Lenny Kravitz may have recently honed their left-wing chops, no one has chronicled life in Bush time with the same talent, consistency and heart as Earle.

"I'm not a political writer," he said in 2003. "I'm just a songwriter who has never excluded politics from what I do, and I find it hard to write about anything else right now." Hailed as the hillbilly Bruce Springsteen after the success of his 1986 album Guitar Town, Earle emerged from jail and drug addiction in the early '90s to produce an amazing string of critically acclaimed albums.

Skipping from genre to genre, his music is an eclectic mix of roots rock, country, folk, blues, bluegrass and grunge, with tinges of world music, and hip-hop sprinkled in--all spread with his rough-edged voice and penchant for anything with frets and strings. It's all over the place, and it's all Steve Earle.

In the wake of 9/11 and the run-up to the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq, while "progressive" Neil Young chimed in with the pro-war "Let's Roll," Earle, a longtime opponent of the death penalty who cut his musical teeth in the anti-Vietnam War movement, denounced the "war on terror" outright.

His song "John Walker's Blues," released in 2002 on Jerusalem, was written from the point of view of John Walker Lindh, the "American Taliban" captured and tortured in Afghanistan who became a poster boy for the U.S. invasion.

Too empathetic for a country bent on war, the song was branded "unpatriotic" and Earle a traitor by critics from across the political spectrum. "I wrote that song because I have a son Lindh's age," he said in a recent interview. "And I know scapegoating when I see it."

Earle remains opposed to the war in Iraq and favors withdrawing U.S. forces, saying recently, "It was never about [democracy] anyway. My country has proven, over and over, it will accept a right-wing dictator as long as he doesn't nationalize his oil companies."

While "John Walker's Blues" got the headlines, Jerusalem was a scathing broadside against the twisted priorities and cultural ignorance of imperial, post-9/11 America. Music critic Mike Marqusee called it "a masterpiece of politically engaged popular art to set beside Dylan's The Times They Are A-Changing and the best of Bob Marley or The Clash."

In the lead-up to the 2004 election, while Springsteen stumped for pro-war Democratic candidate John Kerry, Earle released The Revolution Starts...Now. The album took on the plight of soldiers fighting in Iraq ("Rich Man's War" and "Home to Houston"), told a U.S. spook's bitter tale of intervention in Latin America ("The Gringo's Tale") and thumbed it's nose at Bush and his minions in "F the C.C." and "Condi, Condi."

And then there's the title track, which ends:

Last night I had a dream
That the world had turned around
And all our hopes had come to be
And the people gathered 'round
They all brought what they could bring
And nobody went without
And I learned a new song to sing
The revolution starts now.

"I'm not a Democrat," he said recently. "I'm a socialist in a country that doesn't allow a socialist party."

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THROW IN a relentless touring schedule which produced two excellent live CDs--2003's Just an American Boy and the acoustic Live at Montreux 2005, which both highlight some of his best and most political songs--plus his marriage to talented singer and songwriter Allison Moorer, and their move from Nashville to New York City, and it's not surprising that his latest release, Washington Square Serenade, is less politically focused than his other recent work.

"I wanted to make a more intimate record," he explained. "I think I've earned a year off from being strident." He also took a break from producing, handing off to John King of the Dust Brothers, renowned for marrying hip-hop and rock with artists such as Beck and the Beastie Boys.

The approach works, particularly on "Tennessee Blues," a rejuvenated goodbye to Nashville as he heads to New York, and "Satellite Radio" which has a nice balance of looped percussion, traditional instrumentation, and enough hooks to keep you singing long after it's done.

"City of Immigrants," recorded with the Brazilian band Forro in the Dark, celebrates New York's diversity and immigrant history, ending with the line "all of us are immigrants." And "Down Here Below" is a view of life in Manhattan seen through the eyes of a red-tailed hawk soaring high over people's struggles, with a hillbilly hip-hop bridge reminiscent of the Bad Livers.

It also features beautiful backing vocals by Moorer, who also contributes to the lovely duet "Days Aren't Long Enough" and is the likely subject of "Sparkle and Shine" and "Come Home to Me," two delicate and nicely textured love songs.

But the album's few darker and more political tunes also stand out. "Oxycontin Blues" chronicles a story of rural desperation and drug addiction, and sounds like a forced march straight over the edge, while the ringing "Red Is the Color" rages at Bush's America, groaning with frustration and bitterness.

Earle snarls, "Make way for his majesty, the prodigal King/Still taste the poison when you're kissin' the ring/Don't say he never gave you anything," and when the harmonica blows you rage along with him. It's bad ass, the hardcore troubadour at his finest.

Throw in a solid cover of Tom Waits' "Way Down in the Hole," and the rousing "Steve's Hammer (For Pete)" and it's clear that while he might have slowed down to take stock, he's still not satisfied with what he sees.

If you're new to Steve Earle you've got some catching up to do. And while Washington Square Serenade might not be your first stop, it's a great place catch your breath--and don't worry; Steve's hammer's still swinging.

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