(Photo by JOSHUA BLACK WILKINS)
"Harlem River Blues," fresh on the heels of last year's "Midnight at the Movies," is just that. Earle reveals even more influences and gives us more of a glimpse of the talent he is.
From the 2007 EP "Yuma" and the 2008 full-length "The Good Life," it's been obvious Earle has a handle on the classic sounds of country, folk and bluegrass. He added an element of modern rock with "Midnight at the Movies."
Now on "Harlem River Blues," released Tuesday by Bloodshot Records, the variety runs deep. There's gospel on the title track, rockabilly on "Move Over Mama," country folk on "Workin' for the MTA," string band on "Wanderin'," blues on "Slippin' and Slidin'" and a piano ballad on "Rogers Park."
No two songs are alike -- save the fact that the title track is reprised on track 11 -- and yet it all hangs together.
The unity is more thematic than anything. While "Move Over Mama," "Slippin' and Slidin'" and "Ain't Waitin'" provide a bit of fun, this is a sad record.
The title track is a gospel number from the perspective of a man who plans to drown himself in the Harlem River before the troubles of the world overtake him. His confidence may be misguided, but the narrator seems certain he'll get into heaven if he acts now.
This sadness of a country boy in the city pervades much of the song. Earle, a Tennessee native now living in Manhattan, uses his new home in two other tracks about the sadness of the city: "One More Night in Brooklyn" and "Workin' for the MTA."
The latter song is especially interesting, as it begins with the line "Well, it's cold in them tunnels today," a line that could have been pulled from an old coal miner song.
We soon learn, though, it's another country folk tradition -- the train song. However, Earle has taken the tradition underground and brought it to New York.
Chicago also isn't safe, as the album closes with the beautiful and haunting "Rogers Park."
It's ground that's been well trod in country music, from Tompall Glaser and Harlan Howard's "Streets of Baltimore," to Merle Haggard's "Big City" and even a modern alt-country example like Robbie Fulks' "Georgia Hard."
Yet Earle makes it fresh. His best music always feels old but never stale.
And genre discussions can be thrown out in "Christchurch Woman," one of the absolute standouts of the album. The song can only be classified as good -- another lyrical gem from one of the best young songwriters in music.
Earle has done it again with "Harlem River Blues," crafting a diverse and cohesive album that should be in heavy rotation for music lovers this fall.
While Earle could make a high-quality record on his own, he does well in choosing well-known backing talent, including upright bass and cello from Bryn Davies, electric guitar from Jason Isbell, saxophone from Jeff Coffin, steel guitar from Paul Niehaus and harmonica by Ketch Secor.
But as his concerts have proven, with this guy, a full band or just one man and a guitar can get the job done. When the music's good, it shows.
Released: Sept. 14 on Bloodshot Records
The players: Justin Townes Earle-gutiar, vocals; Skylar Wilson-organ; Bryn Davies-upright bass, cello, vocals; Jason Isbell-electric guitar; Bryan Owings-drums, percussion; Josh Hedley-fiddles, violin, vocals; Paul Niehaus-steel guitar; Phil Lassiter-trumpet; Jeff Coffin-saxophone; Ketch Secor-harmonica.