Justin Townes Earle "Harlem River Blues" (Bloodshot Records , 2010)
The period sound of a maturing artist.
'Harlem River Blues', themed around his adopted New York, is Justin Townes Earle's fourth album under his own name in as many years. Although it is blues inflected - particularly on 'Slippin' and Slidin' with it's meaty reverb heavy electric guitar - there is also countrified folk and pure '50's rock'n'roll and rockabilly moments such as 'Move over Momma'. Since all the music styles are contemporaneous they sit happily alongside each other. It's like flicking the dial on a radio and picking up a signal that's been bouncing around the stratosphere for 50 years.
Opening with the title track - the happiest suicide song you're likely to ever hear - spirited guitar and a vamping organ as Earle sings "Lord I'm going up town to the Harlem river to drown". And there's a reason for the track's joy. For a moment Earle and the Lord are on speaking terms but it might not last "even a good man'll break/he'll let his troubles bury him whole") so the smart thing to do is to end it all "whilst I'm good in his grace/I'm no fool momma / I know that the devil has been tempting and choosing my fate".
The flip side is displayed in 'Slippin' and Slidin', which surely depicts a dependency on something ("I'm losing patience with my only friend / Why do I try my luck? / I should never touch this stuff / but it shouldn't make any difference mama as long as I keep up appearances"). It's a dark night of the soul, but it's followed by 'Christchurch Woman' which is buoyed up with the optimism that redemptive true love may be just around the corner.
Mixed in on the remaining tracks of this too brief album are the Woody Gutherie-ism of 'Working for the MTA', the soft country simplicity of 'I'm Learning to Cry' a love song that Hank Williams could have written. It's all here - everything; love, despair, joy. And a broad winking double take moment in 'Move Over Mamma' - ostensibly about coming off tour to find the house in a mess and, worst of all, your woman has taken to sleeping in the middle of the bed. Innocent, like a '50's radio rock and roll song, up until the line "I find you flat on your back with your legs open wide". Say what ? This is a wake up call of the other kind.
In one aspect this is a strange album to review - knowing that many of those that hang around here will have already pre-ordered it means that whatever I have to say is already somewhat redundant. Even so, it's worth putting down that this is a good album that works its way further into the affections with each play. It's subtle, it celebrates love, it rejoices in physicality and there's a certain optimism that shines through even on the bleakest song.
Date review added: Saturday, October 02, 2010
Reviewer: Jonathan Aird
Related web link: Justin Townes Earle homepage