Review Summary: Justin Townes Earle sings the blues. Really well, actually.
Contemporary roots songwriters can easily fall victim to a number of crutches, and Justin Townes Earle--son of one country legend whose named after another--gets subjected to each of them. More important than who or where he comes from, it's Justin's tendency to drift into the doldrums of new, alternative country that hold him back. That's what makes Harlem River Blues
a resounding success; It's decidedly more Presley than Adams (Ryan, not Bryan), with some Waters (Muddy, not Roger) thrown in for good measure.
One thing that really sets Harlem River Blues
apart from its contemporaries (not that any come to mind) is its timeless vibe. Not unlike M. Ward's Post-War, Harlem River Blues
sounds as though it could have just as easily been released forty years ago. There's a distance between Justin's voice and his guitar, but never a separation. It's hard to to explain, but you'll know it when you hear it. Call it the jukebox effect. I will, and do. Another thing that distinguishes the album? The songs.
Justin Townes Earle is clearly a charismatic dude and his energy and enthusiasm carries the album from start to finish. The album's title track, a textured, hip-shaking blues number loaded with backing vocals and an organ, is taken to an even higher level with Justin's guitar and vocal work. He's never fancy, but you always get the sense he could be. His confidence and talent is palpable, but his restraint is most impressive. Even at his most varied, Earle's range is never forced. “Rogers Park” and “Slippin' and Slidin'” take Springsteen to the south, only, y'know, with horns; on “Learning to Cry” Earle sounds like a Johnny Cash incarnate, yet each song sounds totally in line with the modern country of “Christchurch Woman” and the rockabilly stomp of the slap-happy, bass-dominated “Move Over Mama”.
Of course the album isn't perfect. You won't find a "Waiting Around to Die" or "Copperhead Road", but not every album needs a classic to be one. And no, it's probably not a classic. Some songs aren't as good as others, and at times the album might seem like it's about to lose its footing but it never does. Its front to back one of the strongest roots albums to come out this year (not The Roots
, though it's better than How I Got Over
Harlem River Blues
is Justin Townes Earle's crowning moment. It's relaxed without being tiresome, vintage without being gimmicky. Most importantly, it's great. The songs are great, the lyrics are great and there's not a weak song on it. My biggest issue is the reprise. Not because it's kind of pointless (though it is), but because it actually works pretty well as an intro. How do I know this? From playing the album front to back more times in a row than I'd care to admit.