Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Justin Townes Earle -- Harlem River Blues

Harlem River Blues
Bloodshot Records

Justin Townes Earle is Steve Earle’s son and his middle name honours Townes Van Zandt. In the course of three albums, now, he’s more than lived up to the Earle and Townes names as a promising singer-songwriter well-versed in folk, honky tonk and rockabilly styles. His first album, 2008’s The Good Life was a formidable debut and his second, last year’s Midnight at the Movies, was even better. Harlem River Blues, his third in three years, cements his reputation as one of today’s finest young artists.

After living most of his young life in Nashville, Earle moved to New York City and many of the songs on Harlem River Blues, beginning with the title track that opens the CD, seem inspired by the city. In “Harlem River Blues,” Earle’s first-person character is on his way to drown himself in the Harlem River. It’s a surprisingly manic song for such a depressive subject. Other NYC-referenced songs include “One More Night in Brooklyn,” a love song with an R&B groove, and “Workin’ for the MTA,” an infectious modern-day folksong about working in train tunnels – in this case the tunnels of the New York City subway system.

“Wanderin’,” with its familiar themes of footloose travelling is another modern-day folksong. The spirit of Woody Guthrie – who spent some of his most productive years in New York City – can be felt in “Workin’ for the MTA” and “Wanderin’.”

Along with New York City, there also seems to be some pretty obvious Memphis influences on this record. “Move Over Mama” is a rockabilly tune driven by a slap-happy bassist that sounds like it could have been recorded at Sun Records in 1958, and “Christchurch Woman” sounds like it could have been recorded in a soul session a decade later. And I’ve already mentioned the R&B groove on “One More Night in Brooklyn.”

There is so much promise in this young artist. Unfortunately, it seems that he’s also got Steve’s and Townes’ predilections for self-destructive behaviour. He recently entered rehab to deal with addiction issues – here’s hoping that, like his dad, he’s successful in getting control of his demons.

--Mike Regenstreif

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