The fact that Justin Townes Earle has chosen to flaunt the names he shares with two legendary songwriters shows the kid does not lack in confidence. The son of gravelly voiced hardcore troubadour Steve Earle, and (middle) namesake of late, great Texas songwriter Townes Van Zandt (a friend and mentor to the older Earle before his untimely passing in 1997), Justin must have wondered whether the attention he would undoubtedly receive was legit or the result of a golden birth certificate. Yeah those names get you in the door and perk people‘s interest, but then the scrutiny and inevitable comparisons are only made that much more intense. In short, you better write some damn good songs. Earle’s 2008 debut, The Good Life, was a modest album that made good on the promise that comes with such esteemed lineage, but never truly set the Americana circuit on fire. For Earle though, it didn’t take long to take another shot.
With his recently released sophomore effort, Midnight At The Movies, Earle should expect the type of lazy journalism that has plagued nearly every review he’s ever received (including this one) to finally come to an end. The new album shows a distinct growth over his debut, and should establish Earle as an artist worthy of being judged entirely on his own merits. In fact, he seems more indebted to country music icons Hank Williams and Buck Owens than daddy and his drinking buddies. The songs hold close to a sound that wouldn’t feel out of place on a Nashville radio station circa 1960 or so. The violins sound more like fiddles, the pedal steel guitars sweep in and out of the mix beautifully, and the drums are often simply brushed - all adding up to a tight, professional sounding collection of old fashioned country music. Add to that a set of pipes that can sway from a Paul Westerberg rasp to a Hank Williams croon and you’ve got all the ingredients for something truly special.
“Mama’s Eyes” is the autobiographical first single, which uses his paternal relationship as the inspiration for some nice maternal sentiment. Sounding as smooth vocally as a young Ryan Adams (who Steve ironically once said was the finest vocalist the alt country movement had produced), Justin thankfully lacks the overly-nasal Southern growl that can sometime irritate on his father’s songs. Elsewhere a mix of originals snuggle up with a few well chosen covers - rock fans will recognize a terrific mandolin-driven version of The Replacements’ “Can’t Hardly Wait” - that establish Earle as a top notch scene-setter and story teller. I wasn’t ready to be as taken with Midnight At The Movies as I have been over the past week or so - this is a very solid album that, while significantly different in sound than anything his father has ever released, easily bests everything Steve’s done since Jerusalem, arguably even The Mountain. The next time Justin Townes Earle has a record to promote, I promise not to mention you know who, or you know who, again. There’s no reason to - Midnight At The Movies signals the arrival of a unique artist flourishing within one of America’s oldest and purist musical forms.
MP3 :: Mama’s Eyes
MP3 :: What I Mean To You
(from Midnight At The Movies. Buy here)