Justin Townes Earle — Harlem River Blues. Out now, Bloodshot Records.
You can’t fall over a review of or an interview with or an article about JTE without the painfully obvious question about his name in it; after three albums and an EP, I would like to think that most music writers are more clever than that, but here I am, writing about how I am more clever than those people. So what do I know?
My point is: Harlem River Blues, JTE’s third full-length album in four years, should put those questions to an end, because I think that if we know one thing about Justin Townes Earle by now, it’s that he’s gotten where he is by working hard, but mostly by being a flat-out fantastic songwriter. We’ve asked enough questions about Townes, and about JTE’s daddy, over the last three years; the answers are already there. Can we just talk about the music now, for once?
Because JTE’s music has always drawn from traditional Americana and roots sounds, acoustic guitars and old blues licks and songs about cheatin’ women and hard drinkin’, but HRB takes it even a step further, where the title track and “Move Over Mama” sound like nothing so much as they sound like old school Nashville, old school Sun Records, all the places that Justin Townes Earle has come from, learned from, fucked up in, and now made his own. It’s one of those albums that’s more complex than what came before — the gospel choir on the title track, the guitar work and guest voices — but in many ways, it sounds more stripped down and simple than Midnight at the Movies. Maybe not simpler, just more straightforward.
There’s no excuses, there’s no working around his name. This album belongs to all three of JTE’s names in way that is solely his. It’s a very grown-up album, is what I mean, complex and straightforward all at once, and it sounds both exactly how I expect a JTE album to sound and, because he’s too smart and too talented to do the same thing twice, utterly new.
I didn’t give this album a fair shake until this week, to be perfectly honest — it came out in the midst of either prep for or recovery from Bristol Rhythm & Roots, and since JTE wasn’t on the lineup, I listened to it once and it promptly got lost in the 1519 other tracks in my iTunes released in 2010. I feel bad about that — but getting to spend some good time with it late in the year, still mixed in with my great 2010 relistening project, I am startled by how solidly and quietly excellent Harlem River Blues is. I shouldn’t be surprised by this, because the truth of the matter is that JTE’s albums always are just that.
He’s had a rough year, personally, in a lot of ways, in the news immediately after the album release for all the wrong kinds of reasons. The reports I’m hearing from his recently resumed tour in support of the album is that he sounds better than ever, and I’m glad to hear that. JTE is a talented guy, and I’d rather have him healthy and happy and playing out than not.
Justin Townes Earle plays the Cradle Monday 12/13, with Caitlin Rose. Doors 7, Show 8, $15 in advance and at the doors. I’ll be there. Say hi.