Album review: Justin Townes Earle's 'Harlem River Blues'

Friday, December 17, 2010; 12:33 PM

Justin Townes Earle was born with a lifetime challenge built into his name. His last name is from his father, Steve Earle, and his middle name is from his dad's mentor, Townes Van Zandt - two of the best country-folk songwriters of the past 50 years. When Justin became a singer-songwriter, he had a high mountain to climb. But against all odds, he climbed it on his 2009 album, "Midnight at the Movies," with such indelible songs as "Someday I'll Be Forgiven for This," "Black Eyed Suzy" and, especially, "Mama's Eyes." There aren't any songs that good on Earle's new album, "Harlem River Blues," but that's not what this record is about.

On this project, Earle is less concerned with lyrics than with finding his sound, and he finds it in a fat-toned, unhurried country-blues. That greasy groove allows his handsome tenor to relax until he sounds as if he's talking off-handedly and confidentially, even as he hits every note with dead-on pitch and a resonant hum.

The 10 original songs are mostly juke-joint numbers, finger-snapping tunes about fickle women and footloose men. Some of the best musicians in Nashville - drummer Bryan Owings, bassist Bryn Davies and keyboardist Skylar Wilson - lay down an understated but irresistible throb beneath such songs as "Move Over Mama" and the title track. But it is Earle's voice, shrugging off a thousand bumps and bruises to look forward to the next scene, that sells them.

JUSTIN TOWNES EARLE

"Harlem River Blues"

Kindred spirits: Teddy Thompson, Jakob Dylan, Shooter Jennings, Colin Gilmore

Show: Sunday at the 9:30 Club. Doors open at 7 p.m. 202-265-0930. www.930.com. $20.

- Geoffrey Himes

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