Friday, May 20, 2011

Review: Justin Townes Earle - Harlem River Blues

By Jon Stone | @jwstone - November 10, 2010 

On September 20th, just three days after the release of Justin Townes Earle's Harlem River Blues, the artist was arrested in Indianapolis after a performance for battery, public drunkenness, and resisting arrest. The arrest led to the cancelation of his fall tour, and Earle, who has had long history with addiction (much longer than his mere three years as a solo artist), checked into rehab. (You can read about the incident over at Old Kentucky Blog, which includes a long thread of comments from eye-witnesses on both sides of the conflict -- also check out Earle's response.)

These kinds of events are unfortunate on many levels, not the least of which is great concern for JTE's tenuous health/drugs situation.  That Harlem River Blues is brilliant and deserved the kinds of publicity that JTE could have garnered for it by touring directly after its release is another casualty of that public meltdown. I am hard pressed to think of any album or artist that moves so effortlessly between genres. The record starts with the title track, a rousing 50s-era country number, and from there branches out deftly in a variety of threads: from rockabilly to jazzy delta blues, and from Drake-esque folk to straight-out gospel. And with that kind of range -- talent that may or may not be inextricably  conflated with his habits -- surely, JTE should be added to the short list of troubled musical geniuses.

As a student of the history of country music, Earle is a perfect model of modern distillation. It's as if he has been able to wrangle 70 years of tradition and produce something fresh and new from that diversity -- something that his father, the acclaimed Steve Earle, has attempted over his long career -- but perhaps less successfully, as "alt-country" still seems the best designation for Steve even while Justin remains unclassifiable.

Harlem River Blues is one of my favorite records of the year, and it's going to have to tide me over for now. Though JTE's tour will resume at the end of the month, he steers clear of the midwest (no surprise there) and then will be moving things to the UK. Still, make sure you add it to your list of 2010 records to spend some quality time with.

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