For those afflicted with severe East Coast bias but trapped somewhere in flyover country, MTV has seen fit to unveil the Virtual Lower East Side. A truly bizarre Sims–Second Life hybrid, the VLES allows you to customize your own virtual dude/dudette, outfit him/her in all manner of American Apparel accoutrement, and explore evidently painstakingly exact replicas of the Cake Shop, Pianos, Bowery Ballroom, etc., all holding virtual “concerts” featuring real-life video footage of the Cold War Kids and Of Montreal and whatnot. Interpol is constantly blaring in the background; faux-edgy touches (the desktop icon is a giant rat) give it that grimy, authentic LES feel.
Right. Right? Are we all familiar with that grimy, authentic LES feel? Does this carefully tousled utopia, designed to entrance the culture-starved denizens of, say, North Platte, Nebraska, actually exist? Does it reflect New York City as it is, was, will be, should be, might’ve been?
Nothing else to do but ask Steve Earle. He’s in town, you know. Maybe you heard about it. If not, “Tennessee Blues,” the first track on the new Washington Square Serenade, will set you very explicitly straight: “Bound for New York City/And I won’t be back no more/Won’t be back no more, boys/Won’t see me around/ Goodbye Guitar Town.” (When Steve needs an extra syllable, he usually reaches for “boys.”) Thus does he draw a line straight from Guitar Town, the 1986 debut on which he’d already perfected his American Badass persona (actually doing the terrible things Springsteen only sings about, and then doing the time) to this, his New York Album. Steve’s taken root in the Village; he knocked ’em dead several months back at the Blue Note, violently strumming his guitar and melodically croaking his eloquent odes to sentimentality and sedition, his head crowned by a magnificent tsunami of a comb-over, trying to remember which ex-wife (out of five possibilities) he wrote which song for, with Wife No. 6, the bright-eyed singer-songwriter Allison Moorer, his opening act. He gleefully described their cramped new apartment, their respective workspaces way too close together. Sacrificing square footage for that grimy, authentic feel, just like the rest of us.
By Serenade‘s second track, “Down Here Below,” just like the rest of us, Steve is bitching about real-estate jargon.
Now Hell’s Kitchen’s “Clinton”
And the Bowery’s “Nolita”
And the East Village is creepin’ ‘cross the Williamsburg Bridge
Hey, whatever happened to Alphabet City?
Ain’t no place left in this town that a poor boy can go
His gruff but inviting speak-sing is as gruff and inviting as ever, a cheek-to-cheek hug from your coarsely bearded, half-lit but nonetheless beloved grandfather. But Serenade was produced by one of the Dust Brothers—it should be someone’s full-time job, with benefits, to keep people like the Dust Brothers away from people like Steve Earle. Super-slick, Beckian, urban-aesthete flourishes do such a raw and volatile talent no favors. Steve’s appeal lies in his potential to croon a heartbreaking ballad, recite the Constitution backward in under 60 seconds, or smash his guitar over your head at any given moment—live, his demeanor is still laced with equal parts danger and delight. Too much of Serenade makes him sound just pretty enough but overly polite, his more provocative urges papered over with shiny good cheer, as suspect a Giulianian makeover as befell the renamed neighborhoods Steve now mourns (this is the man behind 2002’s “John Walker’s Blues,” which chillingly humanized John Walker Lindh back when most were in no mood to humanize, much less sympathize with, The Enemy). His political barbs still expertly jerk knees as his soft-focus, lovelorn laments do tears. And “City of Immigrants,” with NYC’s own party-minded Brazilian troupe Forro in the Dark, has an appealingly folksy “Me and Julio Down by the Schoolyard” bounce to it as Steve spells it out: “All of us are immigrants,” the harmony softening the hectoring a bit.
Perfectly good, but a touch self-satisfied and complacent: a tough sell in the big city. Meanwhile, creeping ‘cross the Williamsburg Bridge in the opposite direction is a better record: Brooklyn sextet Oakley Hall’s I’ll Follow You, a bone-deep and breathtaking psych-country epic with the range and muscle and wistful transience of Steve’s best work, the crabby, craggy distorto-guitar dirges harking back to harder-edge Earle benchmarks like “Taneytown.” Twin leads Patrick Sullivan (late of the outstanding Brooklyn avant-pop outfit Oneida) and Rachel Cox (currently of the booming, mesmerizing voice) bellow beautifully, as though struggling to make their lilting lullabies heard through gale-force winds that could be blowing anywhere—the band’s rustic but raucous sound, bewitching on record and pulverizing live, doesn’t desperately try to sound Southern, or Appalachian, or North Platte, Nebraskan, and thus effortlessly evokes all three. It doesn’t particularly signify “New York,” either, but its confidence, its strength and finesse, does. Sullivan starts off crooning tenderly on opener “Marine Life,” but is soon swiped at by crunching guitars and yearning violin; Cox thunders through the anthemic “All the Way Down,” building unstoppable momentum but never losing focus. Follow‘s lyrics are a poetic mishmash from which emerges the occasional resonant one-liner (“I’m gonna love you more than your mother”), but they avoid cliché as calmly as the backdrops do, alternately sweet and sweltering.
Though not exactly amateurs (this is their fourth record, and first for Merge), Oakley Hall can still teach Earle something about youthful aggression, and he can still teach them something about articulating it, whether politically, romantically, or sonically. You can argue that he’s got a formula, an uneasy mixture of horizon-gazing transience and socio-religious portent: Serenade‘s “Jericho Road” is the first song Steve Earle has released named “Jericho Road,” and feels like the 6,000th. But this style has pushed him to towering heights not many can aspire to, and I’ll Follow You suggests another band that can.
Both are invaluable to New York City, even if their relationship to this place is suspicious and frayed or subverted entirely. Exactly a decade ago, on El Corazón, Earle unleashed “N.Y.C.,” an unusually bombastic highway tune with a chorus worthy of the finest cock-rock—speed it up enough and it’d sound like Avril Lavigne. Its plot is deliciously simple: He winds his way up to New York, hits on the pretty girls, gets brutally shot down, and flees immediately back to Tennessee. Now he’s brought the pretty girl here with him to avoid any such calamities, and if as a result he’s a little more complacent, the fire’s still there, still quite possibly all-consuming. You see flashes of that all over I’ll Follow You—”Best of Luck” is a delicate but determined up-tempo jammer with a catchy Replacements riff caught in its teeth. Together, these two entities can rebuild and invigorate the New York City that Earle seems to lament as lost—a strident, vibrant, deeply personal but universally appealing utopia that flyover countrymen will long for, but MTV can’t possibly replicate.
Steve Earle plays Town Hall September 26; Oakley Hall play Bowery Ballroom October 13. The-townhall-nyc.org or boweryballroom.com