Not every new artist or album has to be the flavor of the moment. A corollary to this is that traditional forms became traditional for a reason: They work. These facts have not escaped Justin Townes Earle, whose latest album, Harlem River Blues (Bloodshot Records), could be shot back in time and played on the radio at any point in the last 50 years without raising eyebrows, although the occasional profanity and reference to modern tech would need cutting. His solid set tours through a number of Americana genres--rockabilly, folk, blues, country--and puts his plaintive voice and songwriting skills to good use.
In fact, between his well-chosen backing band (including Jason Isbell, former bassist for the Drive-By Truckers) and his keen grasp of the Americana musical vocabulary, this reviewer was astonished to find all the songs on this disc were written by Earle. Given the sonic range displayed here, from the Southern-fried gospel leanings of the title track to the mournful Woody Guthrie vibe of "Workin' for the MTA" to the piano-driven balladry of the lovely "Rogers Park," that says something. Earle may not have the lyrical wit and bite of his namesake, the great Townes Van Zandt, but with the deep mastery he displays on every single track, who gives a rat's ass?
Of course, if you don't care for Americana, this won't be your cuppa joe. It's also not going to float your boat if you want more upbeat music; while "One More Night in Brooklyn," "Move Over Mama" and "Ain't Waitin'" are jaunty up-tempo numbers (complete with peppy harmonica and electric guitars, in the case of "Ain't Waitin'"), most of the other tracks are darker and slower, although "Christchurch Woman" is at least a hopeful love song. Since traditional Americana music traffics in this kind of material, though, it'd be stupid to expect sunshine and unicorns. I've not heard Earle's previous albums, but if they show the same skill and talent that Harlem River Blues displays in abundance, I'll be putting them on my "please buy me these, Santa" list this year.