Harlem River Blues, Justin Townes Earle's latest CD, fuses folk, rock, jazz, gospel and country into a foot-tapping, body- groovin', eclectic CD. Each song features Justin Townes Earle on acoustic guitar, with a strong backing of upright bass, electric guitar, drums, and at times show stoppers such as the organ or a choir of eight.
The CD's first song and names' sake, Harlem River Blues, pulls the listener in immediately with a screaming organ, an electric guitar playing the melody line, and the drum keeping a beat, mostly with the high-hat. Townes Earle’s swinging voice comes in strong and deep, singing intriguing yet deeply familiar lyrics.
The story of this first song contradicts much of Justin Townes Earle’s well-known lifestyle. In interviews and songs past, he has easily divulged about his musician lifestyle-- full of alcohol abuse and drugs. Here, though, he sings of a traditional Baptist baptism, where the congregation goes down to the water all together to be cleansed of their sins. The mystery lies though, in his suggestion of a death of drowning at the same time, where he will no longer “make a sound”. So at the same time that he is singing of a religious cleansing, he is also singing about the overwhelming sin of downtown Harlem, that can take “even a good man” down. It ends A Capella, deeply reminiscent of a baptist choir.
The sound of this album is distinctly Townes Earle. Using an alternating-thumb picking pattern, he hits hard on the second strum of his thumb. This accent, along with the in-sync drum creates a feeling of motion, as if the record was pushing you forward. The songs fit well together-- with Townes Earle maintaining his style of playing throughout, yet they stand apart, too. They are each different in their focus-- while the first song is strongly gospel, the second is mostly blues, and the third is distinctly country; though each song is a fusion of several different types of music, each leans heavily one way or the other.
One More Night in Brooklyn, one of the more bluesy songs, is much slower that the preceding song. This variation in rhythm, keeps the listener interested throughout. The blues of this particular song is achieved once again with the accented picking pattern and cliff-hanging singing. Townes Earle ends the note high and quick, letting the guitar finish the vocal line. Like all of his songs, it gives the listener an inside look at his life, his roots, and what he thinks about it all. Here, we see the pull of the intriguing Brooklyn, and at the same time, the undercurrents of Tennessee. New York living, he seems to be saying, ain’t nothing compared to a “Tennessee spring”, but at least it’s different.
Harlem River Blues is the kind of record that captivates your mind, so that it becomes almost impossible to take your concentration off of it. The music and the singer alike will excite your mind and get your foot moving, if nothing else.