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Justin Townes Earle – Harlem River Blues

Emily Jackett


Unlike so many, I am not adverse to a good dose of country. Johnny Cash, Gillian Welch, Emmylou, Patsy Cline, all well loved and well listened to. I do wish I could liken Justin Townes Earle to any of these artists. Harlem River Blues is why country has a bad name. Nasal wailings and mundane writing. Boring, repetitive and unoriginal. The first track Harlem River Blues despite the tasteless intro is undeniably catchy. A Gospel inspired organ, choir and hand claps raising spirits and hopes for the rest of the album, sadly it’s all in vain.

Gospel gives way to the jazzy blues, tinny honky tonk, rockabilly and fiddle tunes. The tracks blur together in to one, despite their differences. Predictably bent guitar notes twang through the whole album, amongst bits of brass, blues harp, strings and keys with so much unfulfilled potential. The instrumental embellishments are not nearly enough to distract from banal and repetitive vocals.

It’s overwhelmingly American. not just stylistically, but in the dumbed down, radio friendly nature of the album. It might have a place in the smoky cabins of overweight long haul truckers, some tracks may even have a place on country pub dance floors. Move over Mama is catchy and fun with a danceable simplicity and Wanderin’ has something sweet about it, it’s got a little more soul and colour, it seems a little less paint – by – numbers country, a little less calculated. His upbeat, blue-suede-shoe songs are certainly endearing, but mediocre melancholia reigns supreme. Working for the MTA, Slippin’ and Slidin’ are agonising, the bland and slow drown out the album.

By the eighth track, Learning To Cry, suicidal thoughts begin to creep in. Mine, not  his. Plodding rhythms and repetitive blues. Tedious. Were the Harlem river any closer I might just take myself there and tie a rock to my foot.

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