[1 March 2009]
Justin Townes Earle has a whole lot to live up to, and this time it isn’t just his two famous names. In 2008, his first full-length release, The Good Life, was featured on several critics’ year-end lists and cemented Earle’s role as one of Americana’s best up-and-coming young artists. In the face of numerous accolades, it wouldn’t have been surprising had Earle chosen to rest on his laurels for a while. But here he is less than a year later with his sophomore effort, Midnight at the Movies. Like its predecessor, Movies combines pre-war folk, classic country, blues, indie pop, and even a hint of ragtime to create a sound that’s just as traditional as it is innovative.
At the same time Earle is following in the American music tradition, he’s also slyly subverting it. His “Black Eyed Suzy” is nothing like the bluegrass standard with the same title; instead, the titular character is a world-weary streetwalker who “works the corner out on the block where she was raised”. It’s not the most uplifting song of the year, but “Black Eyed Suzy” is proof positive that Justin’s songwriting has improved even in the short time between releases.
For all those 1980s Paul Westerberg fans who’ve moved on to alt-country, Earle’s cover of the Replacements’ “Can’t Hardly Wait” fits seamlessly in between his originals. Longtime bandmate Cory Younts provides the song’s instantly recognizable instrumental hook on mandolin. It’s pretty hard to make most Replacements songs any better than they already are, but Earle comes close.
As a whole, Midnight at the Movies is more introspective than Earle’s earlier work. He addresses dysfunctional family dynamics on “Mama’s Eyes”: “I am my father’s son / Never know when to shut up / I ain’t foolin’ no one / I am my father’s son”. The title track paints a portrait of loneliness that Hank Williams himself might appreciate. Even if it’s one of the album’s more indie, less country songs, the subject matter is straight-up country despair.
Unlike some other albums which center on three or four singles interspersed with filler, not a song on Midnight at the Movies needs to be skipped over or grimaced through. The downside of this is that the album is barely over 30 minutes in length, with one “song” (the instrumental “Dirty Rag”) clocking in at under a minute. Luckily the album also inspires repeated listening, so it all evens out in the end.
Earle’s first album, The Good Life, may have been a better album judged on a track-by-track basis, but Midnight at the Movies is more cohesive. It may not grab the listener the first time he or she hears it, but albums that grow on you generally have more staying power than flash-in-the-pan, hook-heavy records. More than anything, Movies shows what a bright future young Justin Townes has in roots music. Should he continue down this road, perhaps in fifty years he’ll be the Earle country music fans remember most fondly.