Album Review: Justin Townes Earle – Harlem River Blues

Juli Thanki | September 27th, 2010

Justin Townes Earle - Harlem River BluesIt’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.

3.5 Stars

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  1. Cutting the Treacle
    September 27, 2010 at 9:59 am

    “It’s been a pretty big year or so for Justin Townes Earle. . . . 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.”

    Oh brother. Remember when Garth Brooks went to Ireland and came back and recorded “Ireland” for “Fresh Horses”?

  2. BLL
    September 27, 2010 at 11:53 am

    Treacle-

    Those of use who are Irish love that song! Sorry if you can’t relate to it but he pretty much summed upa lot of our history in four minutes. And sometimes a change of local is good for a songwrtiter.

  3. Cutting the Treacle
    September 27, 2010 at 3:20 pm

    BLL – I get being Irish. My family is, in part, descended from the good folks in County Cavan. But I view with deep suspicion artists who spent a weekend in Kinsale and proceed to write authoritatively on the subject. That’s all.

  4. bll
    September 27, 2010 at 11:58 pm

    Treacle- his grandparents were from County Cork (my place of birth) and he toured Eire, and the UK pretty extensively on both world tours. He has also vacationed extensively in Cork and Wexford, even owning (and may still own; I live in Ohio now) a small home outside of Cobh for a while, so your suspicion about Garth is baseless, IMO. He was well versed in the history of Eire well before he came here; the folks at RTE who interviewed him were rightly impressed.

  5. Mia
    November 11, 2010 at 11:13 pm

    I was a bit disappointed in this album. Nearly every song reminded me of a previous song I’d heard from JTE. I was looking forward to this release, but there was simply too much ‘been there, done that’ to satisfy.

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