Album Review: Justin Townes Earle – Harlem River Blues
It’s been a pretty big year or so for Justin Townes Earle. Midnight at the Movies was released to critical acclaim, he was named one of GQ‘s 25 Most Stylish Men, and he moved to New York City. His third full-length album reflects this change in location. Gone are songs like “South Georgia Sugar Babe” or “Lone Pine Hill;” here are tales of subway operators and melancholy Brooklyn nights.
The album opener and title track might be one of the most joyous, infectious songs ever recorded about drowning oneself. With its handclaps, Hammond B-3 organ, and backing chorus, “Harlem River Blues” is a lively gospel-flavored tune for the suicidal city-dweller who wants to boogie on down to a watery grave. The rest of the album isn’t quite so buoyant.
Earle hops from style to style throughout the 30-minute record–several times it’s successful. There’s the sultry, blue-eyed soul of “Slippin’ and Slidin’” and the stripped-down folk song “Wanderin’,” which is reminiscent of Woody Guthrie and Bob Dylan, two troubadours who called NYC home for a while. “Working for the MTA,” another folky tune, is one of the album’s strongest tracks, cleverly transplanting the standard folk/country train song by making its subject the driver of the 6 Train. “Move Over Mama” a light rockabilly number features excellent bass thumping from Bryn Davies, who was part of Earle’s touring band this past spring.
In addition to Davies, Earle is backed by several crack musicians including Paul Niehaus (Calexico) on pedal steel, Old Crow Medicine Show’s Ketch Secor on harmonica, and guitar slinger Jason Isbell. The resulting sound is more refined than his earlier records, maybe a little too perfect for some songs—such as “Ain’t Waitin’—that may have benefited from the scrappiness that can be found on Earle songs like “Halfway to Jackson.”
With its incorporation of several different styles of music, on paper Harlem River Blues seems like a natural progression of 2009′s Midnight at the Movies, Earle’s genre-blurring tour de force. However, this album is missing much of the fire and vitality he had on his past records. When singing, Earle sounds almost bored, as he does on the dull, generic piano ballad “Rogers Park,” and the times he tries to inject a little character into his vocals—like when he chuckles mid-lyric on “Move Over Mama”—it feels forced.
To paraphrase “One More Night in Brooklyn,” Harlem River Blues might not be as beautiful as The Good Life or Midnight at the Movies, but at least it’s something new from one of Americana’s most talented and compelling artists.
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