On Justin Townes Earle’s fourth release, Harlem River Blues, the songwriter’s more than hit his stride. The concise, 31-minute album adroitly blends Earle’s experiences and musical background with themes connecting personal thoughts and a focus on the American terrain, both interior and exterior.
Recently, Earle moved from his boyhood home in Nashville – he grew up at the center of country music, as well as in the shadow of his famous father, Steve Earle – to New York City. The juxtapositions of urban and rural drift through the new material.
The significance of roots is exemplified on the semi-gospel, honky tonkin’ title track, in which Earle sounds eerily like Billy Bragg while singing about a man who decides his destiny – drowning in the Harlem River – rather than wither through another day of drudgery and difficulty. “Good times come and they go, even a good man’ll break,” Earle matter-of-factly intones. “He’ll let his troubles bury him whole even though he knows what’s at stake.” Then a bit of a shift as his declaration continues, “So I’m taking no chances, carrying over while I’m still good in His grace / I’m no fool, Mama, I know the difference between tempting and choosing my fate.” Earle’s backing band keeps a stable soulfulness highlighted by Skylar Wilson’s funky organ, former Drive-By Trucker Jason Isbell’s electric guitar (he contributes to nearly every cut), and a choir providing a gospel undertow.
The topic of passage through time and place also embody Earle’s restructured take on traditional railroad work songs. The acoustic folk blues of “Workin’ for the MTA” even gets its title, at least partially, from an old Lynyrd Skynyrd song. The piece commences with a low percussion shuffle and upright bass. Earle then begins his tale of familial continuation: the hard-luck narrator relates how his father worked on the trains in Louisiana and now he’s suffering in a similar way while laboring in the uncomfortable subway, hoping for a big payday. As Earle reflectively repeats, “Well, it’s cold in them tunnels today,” his forlorn voice heightened by Josh Hedley’s vaporous fiddle.
During his career Earle has performed with rock groups, bluegrass-oriented outfits, and toured with his father, but who knew he could make a go of it as a rockabilly artist? That’s one impression from listening to the rambunctious “Move Over Mama,” a fun recreation of that famed Sun Records sound, concerning a man who needs more than cooking, cleaning, or talk from his unsympathetic wife. Isbell slips in some rolling electric guitar, but the real action comes from the rhythm section: Bryn Davies’ upright bass and Bryan Owings’ drums replicate the liveliness of D.J. Fontana and Bill Black, who famously backed Elvis Presley. While this is just a taste of early rock’n’roll, it would be interesting to see what might transpire if Earle again tries out this style.
There’s an effective dose of frustration, heartache, and longing that permeates Harlem River Blues. Earle is skilled at perceptively illustrating the sadness of men who pine for lost women, reminisce about former romances or endure long-distance relationships. On mid-tempo country-rocker “Christchurch Woman,” the protagonist hungers for his significant other who used to laugh at his jokes, share in his fondness for a friendly smoke and conversation in a coffee bar. The character admits he may get tired of her in the end, but for now she’s all he wants.
Geography also plays a part in the piano-led ballad “Rogers Park,” set during a solitary winter in the Chicago neighborhood and filled with Springsteen-like physical details. A parallel perspective infuses a traditional country number, “Learning to Cry,” as it evokes Hank Williams or Jimmie Dale Gilmore with its aura of ardor’s warmth turned cold, underscored by steel guitar from Calexico’s Paul Niehaus.
Earle may never escape comparisons to his father or his other namesake, Townes Van Zandt – Arlo Guthrie, Jakob Dylan, and Hank Williams, Jr. have had to deal with son/father associations as well. But with Harlem River Blues, Earle demonstrates a firm understanding of American roots, and a fine-tuned approach to creating his own awareness of time and place.Visit: Justin Townes Earle | Bloodshot
Purchase: Insound | eMusic