October Reviews

Justin Townes EarleJustin-Townes-Earle-2009-300-01

“Midnight at the Movies”


Justin Townes Earle’s second album is a remarkably mature, accomplished disc that grows more absorbing with every listen. He’s clearly completed a master’s degree in the American songbook stretching from Tin Pan Alley to Nashville’s Bluebird Cafe to Austin’s Continental Club. The sound is both modern and throwback.

Earle is ambitious throughout. There’s the stylistic range over 12 tunes and 32 minutes, but also the lyrical depth, a skill for storytelling. “What I Mean to You” and “Poor Fool” offer old pedal steel guitar and a bit of Texas honky tonk swing behind Earle’s breezy, confident vocals evoking early Leon Redbone. The lush “Midnight at the Movies” is a story song worthy of his genes that could easily fit on a Randy Newman album. “They Killed John Henry, beginning with the big man’s funeral and imagining the story thereafter, ” tackles public domain folk and could have come straight off Springsteen’s “Seeger Sessions.”  “Walk Out” is a rag you might hear in New Orleans or Austin. “Someday I’ll Be Forgiven for This” gives Earle a shot at a quiet ballad and the vocal likeness to his old man is chilling. So is the song, as sad a kiss-off — with a lyrical twist — as you’ll hear. The lone cover of The Replacements “Can’t Hardly Wait” fits perfectly thanks to the mandolin-fueled arrangement.
The disc’s best cut, “Mama’s Eyes” makes a nod to Earle’s famous father. “I am my father’s son,” he sings, “never know when to shut up…We don’t see eye to eye, but I’ll be the first to admit I never tried.”

He’s not riding on coattails here. “Midnight” is charming, captivating, and worth listening until sunrise.

For a video of the title cut:

For “Mama’s Eyes:”

“Blood and Candle Smoke”tom_russell_blood_candle_ma

Tom Russell

Shout! Factory

Tom Russell says his latest album is an example of “desert noir” and he thinks we’ve beaten the Americana references to death. Call him an American composer, small c. He’s spent 30 years earning that title, chronicling the fading West and a cast of characters from Muhammad Ali to Mickey Mantle to Picasso. He’s not afraid to match his literary aspirations — there are references to moveable feast, darkness visible, Graham Greene, and a song inspired by a Joan Didion essay here — with his rich, weathered voice.
He’s always been a restless artist. “Blood and Candle Smoke” benefits from his searching for the next step, matching him with members of Calexico who lend atmospheric trumpet, keyboards, and a more solid bottom that his past efforts. It’s a richer sonic palette, well suited to the tunes. The tunes range from the autobiographical, including “Nina Simone” about the first time hearing her voice, “Criminology,” about his time in Africa, and the fine opener, “East of Woodstock, West of Viet Nam,” contrasting Russell’s teaching in Nigeria in the late 1960s while men his age were going to war.

“Mississippi River Runnin’ Backwards” opens to “Old Man River” then surveys the devastation loosed upon the land. “Feast and famine, y’all. Fire and flood. Abominations you understand. Don’t need no Old Testament prophet to tell me we ain’t living in the promised land” to a southwest/New Orleans vibe. He explores river towns in “American Rivers,” visits Mexican believers in “Guadalupe” and a look at Native Americans dying literally and metaphorically  in “Crosses of San Carlos.” There’s also a typically wistful picture in “Santa Ana Wind,” another fine duet with longtime collaborator Gretchen Peters. In keeping with recent albums featuring a song biography or two, Russell profiles Mother Jones in “The Most Dangerous Woman in America.”

Russell has released two dozen albums. “Blood and Candle Smoke” is in the upper tier in a canon that’s established him as a compelling chronicler and American composer. It’s one of the best discs of the year.

Tom performing “East of Woodstock, West of Viet Nam:”



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