Review Summary: Get your bucket - it's time to cry!
It really is a shame what country music has been twisted into over the years. What was originally a unique form of American folk music is largely stigmatized nowadays to be an antiseptic, artistically vapid, lowest common denominator form of music that capitalizes on crass (yet profitable) “redneck” caricatures and imbecilic jingoism. It’s a cynical, commercialized mockery of a musical style that originally gave a voice to the downtrodden, the poor and the miserable.
However, the idiosyncratic duo Those Poor Bastards shakes off those conventions with absolutely zero mercy. Lead by singer, guitar player and songwriter Lonesome Wyatt and backed by The Minister (bass, drums, banjo, etc), Those Poor Bastards could best be described as raw, gothic country music that plays like a Tim Burton movie if he decided to displace any and all of his family friendly quirkiness. The music of their 4th full length Satan is Watching is largely rooted in Appalachian old time music and old school country, with a flavor of Murder Ballads era Nick Cave and a psychotic, God-fearing Tom Waits (and maybe a tinge of lo-fi punk rock). The production is raw and seedy and the performances stagger and stumble along like those of drunken, doomsday-preaching street musicians.
Opening number This World Is Evil lays down the duo’s stark, bleak approach with a minimalistic instrumental array of harsh guitar fuzz, barebones percussion and a quiet flute played over Wyatt’s manic, desperate condemnation of a world of sin, where “they’ll hang a man before his trial, just to watch him suffer”, and all the while “Satan is watching as you sleep”. There is no relenting from here; each song paints a horrid lyrical picture of a world that is not unlike Hell itself, and the music augments this with raw, dirty, minimalistic arrangements. Indeed this terrible band of tribulated troubadours have no interest in diluting the message of Those Poor Bastards with bells, whistles and fancy production tricks; instead, the music reflects the immorality, the inhumanity and the insanity of this perceived Hell on Earth.
A curious (and particularly effective) characteristic of Satan is Watching is the lyrical subject matter, nearly all of which is steeped in over-the-top expressions of guilt, misery and ultra-conservative Christianity. Bear in mind, this is not your average soccer-mom, mainstream Republican type of ‘conservative’ Christianity – this is apocalyptic, fire-and-brimstone, atavistic Christianity (the two members are “registered Holiness Preachers”, if their Facebook page is to be believed). Closing number and perhaps the best track on the album No One brings together all of the album’s themes together in an intimate and chilling fashion – featuring only fingerpicked guitar and Wyatt’s cracked, quivering voice, he sings “My body is a thing corrupt and wrong – it is guilty, yeah it is guilty/My soul is the thing that’s dragged along – it is innocent, Lord it is innocent.” This theme of demented Christian self-loathing is common on Satan is Watching, further exemplified by Swallowed By Sin and Crooked Man, which sports a truly messed up singalong chorus that is far catchier than it has any right to be.
Whether or not you align yourself with self-loathing Old Testament Christianity, it’s hard to resist the raw, passionate intensity of such an extreme worldview. On that note, those who can’t enjoy music that communicates a radically disagreeable message should probably steer clear of Those Poor Bastards (unless, on the off chance, you are a self-hating, old timey Christian, in which this is probably right up your alley). However, if you’re the rare soul who can appreciate some sincerely dejected music (or would like to foul up the delicate little ears of an unfortunate Toby Keith fan), Satan is Watching will be just your cup of bitter, black tea.