Album Review: Justin Townes Earle “Harlem River Blues” Bloodshot

Album Reviews, Features, Music — By on September 16, 2010 10:24 am

To get the bad news out of the way first, this is the first full-length from Earle without Cory Younts, the multi-instrumentalist who provided background vocals so good for Earle’s voice you might have wondered if they were family.  Younts’ voice, harmonica, mandolin, banjo and whistle have moved on to Old Crow Medicine Show.  He will be missed, but most of Earle’s backing musicians return.  We’re also treated to some nice pedal steel from Calexico’s Paul Niehaus and electric guitar, courtesy of Jason Isbell, which complements the songs well without drawing too much attention to itself – some really nice work.

This is a departure, partly because the absence of Younts’ voice (Earle’s voice tends to be more by itself, with the background vocals lower in the mix), but that’s hardly the only reason.  Earle continues to expand his sound, including use of a gospel choir and a horn section here (trumpet and sax provided by Phil Lassiter and Jeff Coffin, respectively), and anyone that might think a move to New York could stifle his southern voice can rest easy (Although, you can here a bit of his hero, Woody Guthrie, and his involvement in labor issues in the railway ballad, “Working for the MTA.”).  Earle wanted the record to sound like Memphis, and while “Move Over Mama” echoes the swing of Jerry Lee Lewis and “Wanderin’” sounds like some lost gospel 78, it’s clear Earle continues to forge his own voice, his own path.

Track for track, it is a more somber record, which might make it a little slower to get into, but the upbeat numbers like “Ain’t Waiting,” the title track, and the aforementioned “Move Over Mama” are plenty to keep the album moving at a good pace.  His strongest songs, lyrically, continue to be his slower songs, so this may be his strongest set to date.  It’s a decidedly different album than “Midnight at the Movies,” a little quieter, a little darker, and a little less country.  An a cappella gospel choir reprises the title track to close the album.  Maybe that Earle’s way of saying he knows this is his most cohesive album yet.  All the changes make it a gutsy record, and while it may be one that fans have to let creep in, it should age well.

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