Album Review: Harlem River Blues by Justin Townes Earle
Excellent, Based on 5 Critics
NOW Magazine - 80 Based on rating 4/5
Justin Townes Earle hit the headlines last week when he cancelled his remaining tour dates to go into rehab following misdemeanour charges arising from an incident at the Radio Radio venue in Indianapolis. Like his father, Steve Earle, and his namesake, Townes Van Zandt, the younger Earle has substance issues to tackle. Slippin' And Slidin' on Harlem River Blues, probably the 28-year-old's strongest album yet, hints at that tendency.
Justin Townes Earle's previous records were promising -- if uneven -- offerings that revealed a considerable talent trying to find his own musical identity as a songwriter, apart from his parental heritage. It may have taken him three albums, but Harlem River Blues delivers in spades what his earlier offerings only hinted at. With co-production by Earle and Skylar Wilson and the backing of a killer, intuitive band, the songwriter drops 11 weighty originals steeped in American musical tradition yet bearing his own inimitable lyric and stylistic signature.
It takes balls of steel to write country blues about the Harlem River, living in Brooklyn, and working on the Manhattan subway line as if one were singing about rural life in the Appalachian hollows. Justin Townes Earle confidently writes and performs these 10+ songs as if he’s singing about life back in Tennessee instead of the Big Apple, and does this so damn convincingly that you believe him. It’s a neat trick, and a tribute to Earle’s artistry that he does this so well.
Each of Justin Townes Earle’s three albums falls under the broad “Americana” label, but he’s yet to settle on a distinct style. While The Good Life found inspiration in old-timey stringband music and Midnight at the Movies was a moody collection of country-folk, Earle’s latest, Harlem River Blues, looks to acoustic blues as its main aesthetic. Given Earle’s often morose and sardonic bent as a lyricist, the shift toward blues suits him well, making for his strongest album to date.
Hopes fulfilled by the star of Americana’s new generation. Ninian Dunnett 2010 Alt-country gave such a generous franchise to sullen shoe-gazers that it took a fresh generation to help the boho fringe out of a hole. The way forward, of course, was through tradition – and Justin Townes Earle has blossomed amid the vibrant and deep-rooted country revival.