Justin Townes Earle's previous records were promising -- if uneven -- offerings that revealed a considerable talent trying to find his own musical identity as a songwriter, apart from his parental heritage. It may have taken him three albums, but Harlem River Blues delivers in spades what his earlier offerings only hinted at. With co-production by Earle and Skylar Wilson and the backing of a killer, intuitive band, the songwriter drops 11 weighty originals steeped in American musical tradition yet bearing his own inimitable lyric and stylistic signature. The title track is an electrifying rockabilly-cum-truck-driving shuffle adorned by slapping bass, guitars, snare and cymbal, and a Hammond B-3. Despite the upbeat tempo and finger-popping rhythmic thrust, Earle's lyrics reveal the protagonist's intention to commit suicide by drowning. With a country gospel vocal chorus complete with handclaps on the refrains, the lyrics and music are intriguingly at odds; somehow the sense of near gleeful purpose in the protagonist's view -- revealing a sense of relief at the prospect of release from this plane of existence -- makes the tune gell. On the breezy summertime groove of "One More Night in Brooklyn," the Tennessee backwoods meets the urban street corner, led by guitars, a skeletal drum kit, Wilson's vibes, and a popping upright bass. "Move Over Mama" is a scorching rockabilly-and-reverb number, full of erotic bravado à la Warren Smith or Billy Lee Riley. (And does that bass ever get slapped!) "Wanderin'" captures the spirit of early Bob Dylan under the influence of Cisco Houston and Woody Guthrie, but the lyrics and sense of necessity and acceptance of the situation at hand are pure Earle. With a country fiddle added to the mix, you can also hear traces of early string bands and even the ghostly presence of A.P. Carter in the refrains. The horns on "Slippin' and Slidin' marry the late Eddie Hinton's brand of Muscle Shoals R&B to laid-back country rockabilly. The narrative love song "Christchurch Woman" is among the moving things here; Earle's vocal is underscored by a female backing chorus and organic instrumentation that also includes beautifully arranged horns -- as if Tom Waits' "Downtown Train" or "Jersey Girl" were filtered through Memphis R&B and Waylon Jennings' early-'60s country. "Ain't Waitin'" is a rockabilly blues, so skeletal it could be played on the back porch. Anyway you cut it, Harlem River Blues is utterly balanced, skillfully crafted, and exquisitely written and produced. Earle proves that he is a force to be reckoned with; in these grooves he embodies the history, mystery, and promise of American roots music.
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AllMusic Review by Thom Jurek