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Justin Townes Earle

Harlem River Blues – 2010 (Blood)

Reviewed by Don Armstrong

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CDs by Justin Townes Earle

There are few obvious parallels between the music of Justin Townes Earle and that of the two men from whom he got his latter two names: his father, Steve, and Steve's idol, Townes Van Zandt. Ditto Justin's own idol, Woody Guthrie. On the surface, at least, Justin has more in common with Ricky Nelson, whose own dad, Ozzie, was also a bandleader. Hmmm...

Let it also be recalled that Ricky Nelson overcame doubters to become a pretty fair musician. Ditto J.T. Earle. The more obvious similarities between the two are a cool, controlled delivery, country-rock rhythms, a propulsive beat and forays into rockabilly. On Earle's third CD, the latter occurs primarily on Move Over Mama, in which he greets his woman, after getting home late, with the comment that she's "been sleepin' in the middle of the bed too long." Where Earle father and son's musical lines intersect is in the vividness, and frequent darkness, of their songwriting, their lyrics, and in a joyousness that often belies those lyrics, which separates both men from Van Zandt.

The elder Earle, of course, has long displayed a strong social conscience, and the same could be said of his son, although songs like Working for the MTA bring Guthrie more immediately to mind. If simple tabulation is the criterion, however, Justin's concerns veer more toward the personal and affairs of the heart, as in the haunting Rogers Park, fortified by a gospelly piano. In fact, Earle invokes an impressive palette of styles, and a little subtle wit, as in the lilting On More Night in Brooklyn. But it's all amalgamated into a sound quite his own.

From the first note to the last, and nowhere more so than on the hard-driving title track, "Harlem River Blues" bristles with confidence, passion and spare but compelling arrangements.