Review : Justin Townes Earle - Harlem River Blues
SputnikmusicContemporary 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”....full text
PopmattersIt 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.
When Earle sings in a throaty voice to the rhythm of a steam engine chugging down the tracks that he’s going uptown to drown himself in the dirty water of the Harlem River, he connects to a tradition that goes back to Leadbelly and before—a time when suicide by water was a spiteful thing to do. And Earle might know the Metropolitan Transit Authority is not his daddy’s railroad, but he also understands the tunnels are as cold and dark as those down South. Earle persuades the listener that hard times are hard times, no matter where or what era one lives in. Suffering is a universal truth.
But HArlem River Blues is no downer. Like all good blues albums, it uplifts. Like Woody Guthrie, Hank Williams, Bob Dylan, and other practitioners of the art that the album invokes, Earle has got a sly sense of humor and the sense of a trickster about him. His complaints are just a way of telling you he shares the burden of living with the rest of us. He might know what it’s like to work hard, as he tells us through the Memphis-style horns of “Slippin’ and Slidin’”, but he also knows the small pleasures of waiting; and of conversation and smoking cigarettes with a pretty gal, as on the jaunty nighttime sojourn of “Christchurch Woman”. The details keep things real as he observes the people and his surroundings and tells us how he sees things....full text
RevilerIt can be difficult to gain a balanced perspective on an album after reading a single summary of the music. Bias can tilt a review, as can personal taste, history and just about everything else that is unique to the person writing it. So in an effort to offer an expanded perspective in such a medium, here are four reactions, four impressions, Four Takes on Harlem River Blues by theJustin Townes Earl.
Justin Townes Earle plays it straight on his third album in as many years, Harlem River Blues, crafting classic country and gospel tunes that sound as if they’ve been playing on the radio forever. The lyrics weave a simple yet fully fleshed-out narrative of a country boy struggling to make it in the big city, feeling displaced and all alone. The narrative enlists many well worn country & western tropes, from the railroad ballad, “Working for the MTA,” to the my-baby done-left-me of “Learning to Cry,” to the rambling-traveler of “Wanderin’,” and the looking-for-a good-Christian-woman of “Christchurch Woman,” and somehow manages to inject new life into them. There’s nothing flashy or showy or here, just a collection of solidly-crafted, traditional songs, telling an age-old story in a brand-new way. After this album there shouldn’t be any question about whether or not the boy inherited all of his daddy’s songwriting genes.
Lauren Alexis Wood (site)
When I was approached by Reviler.org to write my take on Justin Townes Earle’s Harlem River Blues, I was like “Who’s that guy? Sure!” After listening to the album, however, I am going to have to label myself as not his biggest fan, based on this album. NO offense to you Justin Townes Earle. Totally go for it with the Americana Honky Tonk, you could be the next Elvis or Johnny Cash or whatever. Like if you are reading this and you are a fan of either Elvis or Johnny Cash, you should probably go out and buy this album RIGHT NOW, but for me, this album was depressing as fuck. I’m also not into Country music. At all. Except Chris Gaines. What? Anyway, right off the bat in the title track with the “something something up town, to the Harlem River to drown”. This obviously this came from a dark time in your life, I am glad you did not actually go do that, but when I heard that line I was just like “WTF, next song, PLEASE.” The WORST was ‘Learning to Cry’. Make. It. Stop. The ONLY song on this album I liked was ‘Ain’t Waitin’”. Ain’t is not a word, I mean it IS, but not technically… anyway this song got me thinking more along the lines of “I’d like to participate in some sort of harmonica party” versus “fucking just punch me in the throat with your slide guitar I have no reason to live”. Please take a deep cleansing breath Justin Townes Earle, if you are still in a tough spot, I will literally come give you a hug right now if you just promise me you will just never make another album like this ever again holy shit...full text
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