Friday, June 26, 2009

While I Was Away: Justin Townes Earle

So one of the artists I was catching up with during my little blog hiatus was Justin Townes Earle.

You may insert your own paragraph here about his namesakes: Papa Steve Earle and best bud Townes Van Zandt. The questions of heritage, pressure, etc. have already been covered to death so I am going to skip it other than to say that his music has some influences and is at the same time different. Duh. Oh and then there is the obligatory discussion of his early addiction problems that have been now held in check resulting in these two albums which I am also going to pass on given how thoroughly that has already been covered.

No, the question before us, good readers, is the two full albums he has released in the last two years, The Good Life (2008) and Midnight at the Movies (2009). Here again, I am not breaking any new ground by suggesting that while they are both well worth a listen, the second effort clearly out does the first. But in my mind there is no real reason to evaluate them in that way. They are different in some significant ways, but I tend to think of them as two discs that simply should be listened to at different times in different moods.

First the similarities. Both albums are throwback, honky-tonk country albums with similar subjects. I am hard to live with, why do you put up with me? Your hard to live with, why do I put up with you? I have messed up enough in my short life, why should I judge you? You have your own problems, why are you judging me? Relationships, vices, family, overcoming vices and occasional character sketches.

They are both well mixed. Good Life is brighter with a more "live" sound while Midnight is more polished and orchestrated, but both are open with a solid balance of instruments whether it involves pedal steel, fiddle, or just guitars and the rhythm section. Each song on it's own is well-constructed and Justin's song writing abilities are clear.

The differences? From where I stand, Good Life is a good collection of songs like a good set at show. The songs are more upbeat overall than Midnight, but the latter album is just that: an album. It holds together better and ultimately the songs themselves are better for it. They are more complex and move from one to another better. Good Life feels a bit more like Justin is trying out different sets and styles moving from honky-tonk, to 2-step shuffles, to slow blues, while Midnight feels like it was put together in a more thoughtful way. It isn't that Midnight doesn't have variation, but more that it feels like variation on a theme--a theme that is, in fact, Justin's life--that makes for a good story.

So while I would clearly recommend Midnight if you were only picking up one, I would recommend both. Play Good Times early in the evening while hanging out with friends on a Friday night and things are getting going. But as the night progresses and you are chillin' a bit (and perhaps you have moved on to something requiring sippin'), throw on Midnight and let it drift over the talk. Or given that the two albums together only last a little over and hour, listen to them back to back as one flows nicely into another.

Here are a few to give you a taste. As usual it is hard to figure out how to just provide a snapshot of a whole album, so I am going with title tracks and then one other tune that reflects some of the variation. As it happens, if you let the player go, you will get the experience of one album ending and the next beginning. Bonus!

The Good Life (Buy Album)

The Good Life
Far Away In Another Town

Midnight at the Movies (Buy Album)

Midnight at the Movies
Halfway to Jackson

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