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Justin Townes Earle Harlem River Blues Review

Album. Released 2010.  

BBC Review

Hopes fulfilled by the star of Americana’s new generation.

Ninian Dunnett 2010

Alt-country gave such a generous franchise to sullen shoe-gazers that it took a fresh generation to help the boho fringe out of a hole. The way forward, of course, was through tradition – and Justin Townes Earle has blossomed amid the vibrant and deep-rooted country revival.

Praise from Rolling Stone and a top ten country listing on Amazon in 2009 were capped by the title Emerging Artist of the Year at the Americana Music Awards, and the Tennessean could aptly be said to be emerging from the shadow of his father Steve (whose own youthful spin on tradition had been acclaimed long before the alt-country despond set in).

Turning 28, Justin was under considerable pressure of expectation, and the smart money would have bet he’d falter. Harlem River Blues, though, sounds like the work of a man who can handle pressure. It more than matches – it far exceeds – what had gone before.

While many in the new wave of Americana have prospered through a narrow discipline (like bluegrass), it is Earle’s authority across the board that marks him out. From the Hammond organ swell and brisk guitar shuffle that kick off the title-track to its a cappella holy-roller finale, you know you’re in good hands. And when the opening gives way to the sashaying Latin come-on of One More Night in Brooklyn and then the wry Sun rockabilly of Move Over Mama, the ride is plain exhilarating.

Earle’s Southern tenor crests an uncluttered, as-live production, intimate and melodic with an edge of yearning or stridency that recalls both his father and Ryan Adams. The miserabilists need not despair, either; however spry the music may get, there’s a depth to Earle’s songs that shades their colours with seductive darker hues.

There are echoes of Elvis and Woody Guthrie, Otis Redding and Hank Williams, slap bass and well-judged brass, harmony vocals and weeping pedal steel. And if it doesn’t surpass the light touch and originality of a John Sebastian (for whoever recast tradition as deftly as The Lovin’ Spoonful?) this remains a rounded, accomplished and hugely attractive record.

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