Album Review: Justin Townes Earle – Harlem River Blues

Harlem River Blues by Justin Townes Earle

If you take one thing away from “Harlem River Blues” it has to be that Justin Townes Earle has a sophisticated musical pallet. There is no doubt that the man is well versed in American musical history, not that this should be surprising from a man whose last name is Earle and middle name is Townes. On this album, influences seem to range from Sonny Terry to Woody Guthrie to Elvis to Ryan Adams. Stylistically, blues, rockabilly, country, folk, and even gospel all make appearances. All of this initially makes “Harlem River Blues” feel a bit scattered, but after a second listen the album feels like a musical tour of the American South over the past 75 years. It’s a pretty impressive feat, considering that JTE’s music still comes off as fresh and new, never antiquated. Feelin’ like with this album that Earle has given us the most up to date and accurate definition of the previously vague genre of music called “Americana”, which I have heard used to describe far too diverse a group of artists ranging from Old Crow Medicine Show to Wilco. Harlem River Blues shows us that “Americana music”i s more of a heterogeneous collection of sounds than a homogeneous one. It’s more of a class of music as opposed to a genus.

I’m not completely sure “Ain’t Waitin'” is the best song on the whole album, but it’s certainly the most playful, and the line about Satellite radio might be my favorite. Music like this is comforting. It’s the audio equivalent to eating the fried chicken that the song starts off singing about.

“Wanderin'” is a beautifully pieced together old school ramblin’ folk song that definitely has that Woody Guthrie / early Dylan sound to it. It’s just a bit more cheery, maybe because JTE doesn’t seem to let the weight of pressing social issues play much (if any) role in his music. “Working for the MTA” has sort of a Johnny Cash sentiment. It’s the sort of blue collar anthem where people ‘hoot and holler’ between verses to express their connection to the particular line and to acknowledge the performer for hitting the nail on the head. Live, the song is like a tamer, less confrontational version of “Folsom Prison Blues” or something. Both Cash and JTE are masters of somehow maintaining authenticity without any real first hand experience.

The album’s title track has less than subtle gospel and delta blues influences, the choral arrangements, hand clapping, and spiritual(ish) lyrics make the song sound like it would be best performed in a sweaty church in the deep South. Finally, “Move Over Mama” is a fantastically effortless, rockabilly/honky tonk type number that even Sun Sessions era Elvis would have been proud of. It’s also really the most obvious influence from Justin’s father Steve on any of his songs. It’s Kind of like Justin is just showing us that he could have very well gone that route with his career as well, but instead he sought out to make his own name.

Even if you’ve never found yourself enamored with old school country sounds, I think that you’ll find that JTE is an amicable enough of a tour guide through all things Americana, that you will at the very least leave with an appreciation for his passion and craft.

one more night in Brooklyn (not album version)

wanderin (also not album version)

Check out other tracks here at NPR

Harlem River Blues 4.5 out of5

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