Music

Justin Townes Earle: Harlem River Blues

Like all good blues albums, it uplifts. Like Woody Guthrie, Hank Williams, Bob Dylan, and other practitioners of the art that the album invokes, Earle has got a sly sense of humor and the sense of the trickster about him.


Justin Townes Earle

Harlem River Blues

Label: Bloodshot
US Release Date: 2010-09-14
UK Release Date: 2010-09-13
Amazon
iTunes

It takes balls of steel to write country blues about the Harlem River, living in Brooklyn, and working on the Manhattan subway line as if one were singing about rural life in the Appalachian hollows. Justin Townes Earle confidently writes and performs these 10+ songs as if he’s singing about life back in Tennessee instead of the Big Apple, and does this so damn convincingly that you believe him. It’s a neat trick, and a tribute to Earle’s artistry that he does this so well.

When Earle sings in a throaty voice to the rhythm of a steam engine chugging down the tracks that he’s going uptown to drown himself in the dirty water of the Harlem River, he connects to a tradition that goes back to Leadbelly and before -- a time when suicide by water was a spiteful thing to do. And Earle might know the Metropolitan Transit Authority is not his daddy’s railroad, but he also understands the tunnels are as cold and dark as those down South. Earle persuades the listener that hard times are hard times, no matter where or what era one lives in. Suffering is a universal truth.

But HArlem River Blues is no downer. Like all good blues albums, it uplifts. Like Woody Guthrie, Hank Williams, Bob Dylan, and other practitioners of the art that the album invokes, Earle has got a sly sense of humor and the sense of a trickster about him. His complaints are just a way of telling you he shares the burden of living with the rest of us. He might know what it’s like to work hard, as he tells us through the Memphis-style horns of “Slippin’ and Slidin’”, but he also knows the small pleasures of waiting; and of conversation and smoking cigarettes with a pretty gal, as on the jaunty nighttime sojourn of “Christchurch Woman”. The details keep things real as he observes the people and his surroundings and tells us how he sees things.

Earle also knows enough to keep on moving, whether he’s singing about being a lonesome traveler in “Wanderin’” or just someone who can’t stay still as in “Ain’t Waitin’”. This keeps the music lively as well, because one can’t sing about being stirred up without tapping one’s feet. While Earle grounds his instrumentation in Americana roots’ styles, this album sounds distinctly modern because he constantly changes the tempo and builds thick grooves. Even when he’s singing about killing himself, you can dance to the beat. For this reason, Bryn Davies' jumping stand-up bass lines are especially noteworthy, but all the players here (including guest appearances by Calexico’s pedal steel player Paul Niehaus, and a gospel choir) contribute to Harlem River Blues’ timeless, classic sound.

The distinctions between urban and rural disappear when an album so thoroughly connected to the Empire City feels more rustic than anything coming out of the Volunteer State. Earle brings the realization that we all live in the same interconnected world and share matching roots as Americans no matter where we are from. That he does this so eloquently and with such zest; well, that’s just like putting red eye gravy on a New York strip steak -- mighty tasty!

8
Music


Books


Film


Television


Recent
Books

Memoir 'Rust' Wrestles with the Myth of the American Dream

Eliese Colette Goldbach's memoir, Rust: A Memoir of Steel and Grit, is the story of one descending into the depths of The American Dream and emerging with flecks of graphite dust on her cheeks, a master's degree in her hands, and a few new friends.

Books

'Indian Sun: The Life and Music of Ravi Shankar' (excerpt)

Ravi Shankar was bemused by the Beatles, Rolling Stones, the Yardbirds and other bands using the sitar in rock music. Enjoy this excerpt of Indian Sun, by Oliver Craske (who worked with Shankar on his 1997 autobiography), courtesy of Hachette Books.

Oliver Craske
Music

The Strokes Phone It In (Again) on 'The New Abnormal'

The Strokes' The New Abnormal is an unabashedly uninspired promotional item for their upcoming world tour.

Music

"I'm an Audience Member, Playing This Music for Us": An Interview With Keller Williams

Veteran musician Keller Williams discusses his special relationship with the Keels, their third album together, Speed, and what he learned from following the Grateful Dead.

Books

Shintaro Kago's 'Dementia 21' Showcases Surrealist Manga

As much as I admire Shintaro Kago's oddness as a writer, his artistic pen is even sharper (but not without problems) as evident in Dementia 21.

Music

Adrian Younge and Ali Shaheed Muhammad Proclaim 'Jazz Is Dead!' Long Live Jazz!

Adrian Younge and Ali Shaheed Muhammad bring their live collaborative efforts with jazz veterans to recorded life with Jazz Is Dead 001, a taste of more music to come.

Film

"I'll See You Later": Repetition and Time in Almodóvar's 'All About My Mother'

There are mythical moments in Almodóvar's All About My Mother. We are meant to register repetition in the story as something wonderfully strange, a connection across the chasm of impossibility.

Music

Electropop's CMON Feel the Noise on 'Confusing Mix of Nations'

Pop duo CMON mix and match contemporary and retro influences to craft the dark dance-pop on Confusing Mix of Nations.

Music

'Harmony' Is About As Bill Frisell As a Bill Frisell Recording Can Be

Bill Frisell's debut on Blue Note Records is a gentle recording featuring a few oddball gems, particularly when he digs into the standard repertoire with Petra Haden's voice out front.

Music

The 50 Best Post-Punk Albums Ever: Part 4, James Chance to the Pop Group

This week we are celebrating the best post-punk albums of all-time and today we have part four with Talking Heads, the Fall, Devo and more.

Music

Raye Zaragoza's "Fight Like a Girl" Shatters the Idea of What Women Can and Can't Do (premiere)

Singer-songwriter and activist Raye Zaragoza's new single, "Fight Like a Girl", is an empowering anthem for intersectional feminism, encouraging resilience amongst all women.

Reviews
Collapse Expand Reviews

Features
Collapse Expand Features
PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 PopMatters.com. All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.