Trying To Get To You

Saturday, May 23, 2009

The Country Honk Soul Of Justin Townes Earle

For me not to post for six weeks is what I would, charitably speaking, call a slump. I’ve been working on several pieces, including a long piece on my ambivalence and, on occasion, my downright disappointment with the new Springsteen tour. I also have been writing a piece about American Idol, as I actually watched a few episodes this season, and found myself fascinated, if also a bit revolted. Mainly though, I’ve been way too much of a perfectionist, which doesn’t work. Writers write, and bloggers blog.

But like most slumps, it’s sometimes something small that gets you out of it, like the way a cheap hit can get a ballplayer in a groove. Tonight, I've been listening to the Justin Townes Earle album, Midnight At The Movies, for the first few times. I’ve been completely charmed by Earle’s fluency with seminal American music forms; country, folk, bluegrass and a little bit of Dixieland, all imbued with a punk spirit, a welcome dollup of subtlety and a whole lotta of love. The album seems modest, but there's an ambition that purrs at the very heart of the whole thing.

The son of Steve Earle and with a middle name given to him in honor of Townes Van Zandt, Midnight At The Movies is Earle’s second album, and it’s a huge leap forward for him. It would be easy to say that the sound of the album is retro, but that would be wrong. Instead, it’s a sound out of time, like the dance band for a bar on the Texas/Oklahoma border on a Saturday night circa 1947. It swings in all the right places, is warm when it counts, and possesses a very timely sense of humor.

In addition to his folk, country and bluegrass influences, Earle clearly grew up on punk rock, and from it he extracts the freedom to simply be who he wants to be, damn the conventions. He makes the Replacements “Can’t Hardly Wait” sound as though he wrote it himself – subbing melancholy for Westerberg’s grit, and with mandolins and fiddle that shimmer, it’s a beautifully resonant arrangement.

“What I Mean To You” is the album’s high point. With some gentle pedal steel and a rhythm section straight out of a Dixieland combo, it’s such a good song that you can easily imagine Louis Armstrong singing it. Earle is already such a strong lyricist that he can create vivid imagery with only a few words, and the longing and ache that’s at the heart of the song is so delightful as to be almost astonishing. Earle’s singing is there to support the song rather than call attention to itself; fortunately, his somewhat craggy tenor conveys every emotion that they lyrics may have left out.

This is great American music that’s deserving of your attention and an audience. And it’s got soul. I recommend it highly.

Download: "What I Mean To You"

Download Midnight At The Movies From Amazon


Anonymous said...

I've just become a fan of Justin's very recently. Went to see Marah in Philly a couple weeks back. He was the opening act and I was blown away: by his stage presence, his musicianship, his voice, and tunes as brilliant as "Mama's Eyes". He was also very funny in between songs, but it was the music, the songs, the lyrics, the voice that turned me into a fan.

Anonymous said...

Forgot to say the night was perfect as Marah gave the best show I've ever seen them do. They were also very nice and friendly with everybody after the show. A perfect night (and Springsteen had played The Fever the previous night, what else could we hope for?)

AE said...

For anyone in the NY / NJ area, Justin will be playing at my house in Ringwood, NJ this Sunday May 31st. More info:

cambria said...

even if its one track it speaks with my soul which longs for music and convinces this is as a good node . very good album thanks for sharing

gabriela said...