Justin Townes Earle: Harlem River Blues

Justin Townes Earle
Harlem River Blues
Bloodshot
Rating: ★★★★½

As strong as his first two albums have been, it always seemed as if Justin Townes Earle was holding something back. Earle has been a master of classic country and rockabilly from day one, but it was hard not to suspect that someone as talented as he is could do even more. On his third album, Harlem River Blues, the singer-songwriter proves those suspicions were well-founded, expanding his sound and adding just the tiniest bit of pop sheen without sacrificing the intimacy and sense of timelessness that marked his previous work.

Earle’s growth is most noticeable on “Rogers Park”, a piano ballad with a strong Springsteen influence, “Slippin’ and Slidin’”, which has elements of ‘60s soul, and the gospel-tinged title track. But there are flourishes throughout that show an artist beginning to realize just how great he can be. That’s not to say that Earle is moving away from what got him this far. Harlem River Blues also boasts a Sun Studios-style rave-up (“Move Over Mama”), a country railway ballad, complete with pedal steel (“Working for the MTA”), old-fashioned folk-blues (“Ain’t Waitin’) and classic country that could have come straight from the Hank Williams songbook (“Wanderin’”). It all fits together beautifully, creating one of the year’s best albums.