Album Reviews

Album Review: Justin Townes Earle – Harlem River Blues

Justin Townes Earle – Harlem River Blues

Justin, son of Steve, named after Van Zandt, Townes Earle has had a solid career so far. Learning stage smarts in his dad’s backing band, and having a much publicised battle with drink and drugs, he has plenty to draw upon. His two full-length albums to date (and EP Zuma) have been very impressive, and in ‘My Mama’s Eyes’, Earle has written one of the best folk songs of the last decade.

Both Midnight at the Movies and The Good Life where full of great songs, not least Earle’s take on the Replacements’ ‘Can’t Hardly Wait’, but his latest album, Harlem River Blues is his most consistent, and best record to date. Earle has been very prolific over the last few years, and waits months rather than years between releases. This has led to his last two albums having some weaker songs, but luckily Harlem River Blues contains no such thing.

It’s a gorgeous record from front-to-back, and urges the listener to turn it on again as soon as it’s over. Maybe this is because it ends with a reprise of opening track ‘Harlem River Blues’, or maybe it’s just because the album is that damn good. Even though the record is solid throughout, there’s still plenty of high points. ‘Wanderin’ is yet another wonderful ode to add to the great songbook of travelling songs – and by that I don’t mean Michael Buble’s ‘Home’, more like ‘I’ve Been Everywhere’ by Johnny Cash, the Allman Brother’s ‘Ramblin Man’, and Kris Kristofferson’s ‘Me and Bobby McGee’.

‘Rogers Park’ is a career highpoint, and is one of the best songs I have heard all year. It’s one of those songs that hooks you immediately, but yet gets better with repeated listens. Former Drive-By Trucker (and one of my favourite solo artists) Jason Isbell appears on this and ‘Ain’t Waitin’ and adds to the tracks without ever detracting from the original artist. If only all guest appearances were like this.

Lyrically, Earle is as strong as ever. The standout ‘Christchurch Woman’ begins wonderfully with the couplet “I was doing alright, laying in and laying low / I was wasting my night, calling in my favorite songs on the local radio”. It just gets better from there on in: “I’ve always been a fool for a conversation and a couple of smokes / And when i’m feelin’ this blue, I just need someone to laugh at my jokes”, and later: “she may be pretty, but someday I’ll get sick of her shit”. A hell of a song, and one that I’ll be playing long after the year is over.

Album of the year? There’s still a few months left to go, but between this and The Big To-Do, I’m not sure if I need to bother listening to anything else for the next three months.

[xrr rating=5/5]

Related posts:

  1. Album News: Justin Townes Earle – Harlem River Blues
  2. Album News: Justin Townes Earle – Midnight at the Movies
  3. Stream: Justin Townes Earle and Dawn Landes – Do I Ever Cross Your Mind
  4. Download: Justin Townes Earle with Jason Isbell
  5. Download: Justin Townes Earle – Pickathon Roots Music Festival Bootleg


  1. This album is a standout of 2010. I totally echo your sentiments on “Rogers Park” and “Christchurch Woman”.

  2. Two gorgeous tracks alright. But they’re all gorgeous, it’s just a fantastic album from start to finish.

  3. Timmy

    This is the sort of album I keeping hoping for with every new Ryan Adams record. Sadly, I don’t think he has it in him anymore. We’re lucky to have JTE instead.

  4. I’m not sure whether he still has it, I hope he does. But even still, we should be getting Blackhole and III/IV shortly, which come from the good ol days.

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