Archive for the ‘ Music ’ Category

.357 String Band – Lightning From The North (Music Review)

Lightning From The North cover

.357 String Band - Lightning From The North

One common approach for alt country bands is to mix traditional instrumentation with punk-influenced vocals. I’m sure that many people who could otherwise see this music as a reverent, skilled alternative to modern pop country are too put off by the rough singing to appreciate it, and I’ve wondered how this contributes to the divides within country music. Personally, though, I’m a fan of that sound. The aggressive singing is a battle cry for bands trying to reclaim a musical heritage that has been watered down by mainstream expectations, and if this sub-genre has run too far from the wholesome, moral side of country, well, I’m the wrong person to complain to about murder ballads and outlaw songs.

.357 String Band is a perfect example of this style, with their main distinction being their focus on bluegrass instead of more general country. (They call their sound “streetgrass”, but I don’t know that a new term is needed for it.) The members are very skilled country musicians, whose playing adds a lot of complexity to the traditional bluegrass sounds, and with production that retains the energy and layers that most classic bluegrass recordings sadly lose. The lyrics are unmistakably country when considered song-by-song, though very few classic singers would have included so many songs being no-good troublemakers without a few gospel songs for balance. But the singing, of course, is where the band would lose most traditionalists.

I have mixed feelings about the singing on Lightning From The North. Some songs are perfect examples of why this punk approach can mix so naturally with country – witness the authenticity it gives to the hard-partying life in “Dust Devil”, or the world-weariness it brings to the more tender “The Days Engrave”. In many other songs, though, the vocals fall a little flat. The singer seems more intent on hitting all the words at the right time and getting through the song than with actually portraying the emotions that should be behind it. “The Harvest Is Past”, for example, laments social decline (“thieves and beggars prosper while good men wither and die”) with all the subtlety of a high schooler who has been called on to read Shakespeare to his English class, This album features two singers, with the good performances generally coming from Joe Huber, and the weaker ones from Derek Dunn. Both singers have their shares of successes and failures, though. Whether this is from the punk influence on modern country, or the fact that bluegrass music traditionally pushes its performers to stay fast and upbeat on all songs, the band would be a lot better if they would slow down and emote at times.

Lightning From The North is an occasionally uneven, but usually good, collection of songs. It finds a surprising amount of variety in bluegrass, a style that often sounds the same on the downbeat songs as the upbeat ones. My concerns about the singing aside, this is a solid entry in a style that is all too rare among alt country bands.

Grade: B

Jayke Orvis – It’s All Been Said (Music Review)

It's All Been Said cover

Jayke Orvis - Its All Been Said

Was Jayke Orvis serious when he named his album It’s All Been Said? True, he sticks faithfully to country music fundamentals here, but the sum of the parts is nothing quite like I’ve heard before. He provides brilliant instrumentation, mixing a guitar, mandolin, bass and dobro into a richly layered sound that belies his trashy, stoner persona. The music owes a lot to his bluegrass background, but is often toned down and paired with somber vocals: I don’t think there’s a “downer country” movement, but this album makes me want one.

The album’s flaws don’t come from the songwriting at all, but from a lack of focus. It opens with “A Recipe For Tea”, a mix of sampled phone calls and TV horror hosts that sounds like it should be kicking off a album instead of a country one. The second track is appropriately country, but it’s an upbeat instrumental that feels out of place on the depressed album. It could be made to work, but sticking an instrumental right after a pointless intro presents it as filler instead of a legitimate song on its own.

The next several songs establish Orvis as a modern country virtuoso, mixing technically brilliant music with memorable, personal lyrics and strong, understated vocals. He lightens the “downer country” mood with a few upbeat songs that, unlike the early instrumental, still fit in the album thanks to their gritty production and references to the hard side of life.

Even once the album gets going, though, it makes several confounding choices. Why is “Streets” mixed with distracting hoots and applause from an audience, or “Shady Grove Gypsy Moon” introduced with another horror movie sample? “Dreadful Sinner”, a quiet recounting of vigilante justice, should be one of the best songs in recent years: The rich instrumentation is a prime example of how, despite the album title, it has not yet “all been said”, and Orvis’ matter-of-fact vocal delivery makes the lyrics haunting and unshakeable. (From his mouth, “wickedness is painless, but it’s blazing strong and true” sounds as simple and country as the later “that’s what we do with the dreadful sinner, hold him in the river till the bubbles are few”.) But Orvis apparently couldn’t find a way to start or end the song, with a half-minute of unnecessary sound clips on each end. What we’re left with is something that sounds like the middle portion of a longer epic, rather than a satisfying song on its own. (I recommend the video, which is scattered in other ways, but at least makes the opening and closing feel tied to the song.) It’s All Been Said may be excellent two thirds of the time, but a disappointing third is too much when it’s only 34 minutes long.

Jayke Orvis is an amazing talent, with a style that should be able to bridge the gap between standard country fans and the alt country scene. It’s no surprise that Saving Country Music named him the “Artist of the Year” based on the strength of It’s All Been Said. But the album doesn’t quite deserve as many accolades. It’s often excellent, but also uneven. I can easily recommend it, even though I’ll have to keep waiting for the classic that Orvis is obviously capable of creating.

Grade: B+

The Extra Lens – Undercard (Music Review)

Undercard cover

The liner notes to Undercard cover each song with John Darnielle’s typically playful and pithy commentary. The discussion of “Cruiserweights” provides a context that I use to understand the entire album:

There are people out there who transfer footage of old fights from worn VHS to DVD, and through a couple of these people, I’ve managed to put together a small collection. Half of these fights, if I do not personally watch them, will never be remembered by anyone, anywhere, under any circumstances. There are tragic heroes, and then there are really tragic heroes, and then there are guys who, knowing that they’re never going to get rich or famous, will nevertheless consent to have most of the bones in their faces broken in front of an auditorium full of other guys who’ve paid to watch it happen.

The song makes good on this description, tenderly describing a boxer’s thoughts as he is beaten to a pulp. But almost every track on this album fits the theme described here, examining events that would be forgotten if they weren’t captured in song. From the literal (the staff in “Only Existing Footage” laboring over a movie that will never be finished) to the figurative (the immigrants of “Programmed Cell Death” furtively meeting as they watch their culture die off), from the mundane (multiple songs about affairs) to the fantastic (a family trying to forget the horror from the deep they uncover on a fishing trip), Undercard captures these quiet moments. If you doubt the value of snapshots such as these, the album closes with the narrator of “Dogs of Clinic 17”, dying of an unnamed medical experiment, reminding you “there’s a light in all of you who hear my song”.

This album itself may be one of those easily lost events. The Extra Lens released their only other album a decade ago, and that was under the name “Extra Glenns”. Undercard would receive more attention if Darnielle released it as a project of his usual band, The Mountain Goats, or if Franklin Bruno associated it with The Human Hearts. But the ephemeral nature of a side project makes these songs all the more poignant.

The songs themselves are as thoughtful and poetic as anything from The Mountain Goats. Bruno handles more complex musical arrangements than Darnielle would make on his own, but this is definitely a lo-fidelity album, more at home with the anti-folk style of The Mountain Goats than the lusher pop sounds of The Human Hearts. The result is something that feels more vital than most official Mountain Goats releases. If Undercard is both about and an example of personal, easily forgotten moments, it makes an excellent case for its own existence.

Grade: B+

Cake – Showroom of Compassion (Music Review)

Showroom of Compassion cover

Cake - Showroom of Compassion

“I’m so sick of you, so sick of me, I don’t want to be with you”, sings John McCrea on “Sick Of You”. Is this a breakup song, or a complaint about his band? If the latter, that would certainly explain the bored, forgettable performance on a song that should at least be charged with some disdainful energy. If you’re wondering how this ended up being the first single off Cake’s new album, the answer is equally disappointing: Showroom of Compassion doesn’t have anything better to offer.


Cake’s repertoire has always been marked by energy, experimentation, and the occasional burst of vitriol. This album may still provide the brass instrumentation and McCrea’s signature flat voice, but it no longer feels like a punk masterpiece filtered through a ska-meets-beat-poetry scene. Showroom is at least an improvement over Pressure Chief, their last (7 years past!) effort. But even though this album drops the embarrassing attempts to fit a formula that should be defined by constant change, it doesn’t offer up anything new, either. These songs would universally fit in as filler tracks on on of their other albums.

There is nothing wrong with Cake filler tracks. On other albums, they provided a sort of reassuring charm, painting a picture of a band that was happy with everything they were doing and didn’t see the need to strive for crowd-pleasing hits every moment. However, devoid of these hits, the filler is unavoidably disappointing.

There are hints of a band still looking for ways to evolve. “Federal Funding” offers a glimpse into the sorts of songs a “grown-up” Cake could write two decades after their formation: The low-key lyrics announce “you’ll receive the federal funding, you can add another wing” without a hint of irony, allowing its disgust at this mundane world to come through only as subtext. The song may not be radio-friendly, but it gives us a vision of a band that could evolve to be dangerous and challenging to fans who are now over 30. None of the other songs follow up on this promise, though.

After the disastrous Pressure Chief, this album is vaguely reassuring. It’s still not good, but at least they have reversed their downward slide. Now that they can handle the solid, secondary Cake songs, they only need to come up with a couple standout tracks to create a great album. If they manage this, though, it won’t be until the next try.

Grade: C


Roger Miret And The Disasters – Gotta Get Up Now (Music Review)

Gotta Get Up Now cover

Roger Miret And The Disasters - Gotta Get Up Now

For the past decade, Roger Miret (of the seminal 80’s hardcore band Agnostic Front) has fronted The Disasters. The songs typically tell unapologetic stories of his violent youth and the glory days of punk rock. The result is strangely backward-looking for a genre that usually focuses on the here-and-now. But Miret has earned the right to a few victory laps, and The Disasters’ songs are clear and compulsively listenable, a cleaner, Oi Punk-influenced version of his hardcore past.

Gotta Get Up Now still has these stories of Miret’s youth, but it takes a surprising turn towards activism. Through tracks like “Stand Up and Fight”, “The Enemy”, and the title track, Miret suddenly seems more interested in calling his fans to action instead of just telling stories. This is what I thought I wanted for the past few albums, but the reality is strangely unsatisfying.

This is largely because Miret is so vague on what he’s calling on his fans to do. The message is “stand up and work together”, but the lyrics rarely mention what to work together on. There’s a brief mention about the power in a union, and “Red White and Blue” accuses politicians of lying to us, but that’s about it. He’s much more forthcoming when it comes to details about growing up in the Lower East Side (pissing in a record store, breaking into cars, and seeing friends die), but that’s not going to win him much political capital. Are his intentions actually political at all? “Tonight’s the Night” implies that he’s just calling people to rally around a strong, united punk scene.

The songs themselves are satisfying, of course. The band hasn’t changed much in the five years since their last album. If anything, the production is a little dirtier than the earlier albums, which were unusually clear for punk, and the rest of the band is more likely to join in on the raucous vocals. But they don’t have any especially hooky tracks like “Kiss Kiss Kill Kill” or “Roots Rockn’ Roll” to define the album, and the final result feels less vital than before.

The one surprise on Gotta Get Up Now is “JR”, an loving ode to a son. The song is arranged and performed like traditional country, but using their standard punk instruments and vocalization. It’s an unusual take on the increasingly common punk-turned-country song, though Miret will need to make his voice sound a little more serious if he plans to sustain goodwill for this style beyond this one song. I’m glad to see them experimenting with new sounds, though. The band still has a lot of potential, but needs to find new things to say if they are going to stay as important as they used to be.

Grade: C+

Decemberists – The King Is Dead (Music Review)

The King Is Dead cover

Decemberists - The King Is Dead

To start, let’s get this straight: The King Is Dead is not The Decemberists’ “country album” or “folk album”. It has some elements of those, with an acoustic guitar taking lead and the mandolin, tambourine, and harmonica occasionally appearing as well. But the music never settles for long within the strictures of either genre. If anything, a vague term like “The Decemberists’ Americana album” would work.

It’s obvious why people are looking to define The King Is Dead, though. It’s a startling new direction for the band. While The Decemberists have never been afraid of change, this is a sudden reversal from the sea shanties and gritty 18th-century settings.

Many songs still fit comfortably within our expectations of The Decemberists. “Rox In The Box” is full of winking affectation for a granite mine that’s a full century and several social strata removed from Colin Meloy’s current world, while lifting riffs from the traditional Scottish “Raggle Taggle Gypsy”. (It’s also a disturbingly cheerful song about a serious tragedy.) “January Hymn” is a simple song with first-person narration that Meloy’s voice makes intensely personal. But other songs are only identifiably by The Decemberists because of that distinctive voice, and that highlights the boundaries that the band has generally stayed within before: Meloy’s nasal voice has always worked either as a quirk to make his narrators seem human and present, or as a comfortable vehicle for over-literate affectation. Hearing him sing without either of those elements is occasionally jarring. He never strays from his strengths for long enough to make me argue that a different vocalist would be better, but the thought did cross my mind a few times. Fortunately, the songwriting is so consistently strong that any complaints about the vocals seem out of place.

Given that the first few tracks emphasize this departure from the band’s normal sound, it’s obviously intended to be the purpose of the album. These songs break from the clear, story-driven lyrics of the past for more inscrutable meanings, and command their simple Americana instruments to create a powerful, confident wall of sound that would go straight to the top of the pop charts in a slightly different universe. This album deserves to bring in an entirely new set of fans without ever alienating the existing ones.

Knowing The Decemberists, it won’t be more than an album or two before they have shed this style for something new. In a way, that’s too bad. A band could spend its entire career exploring the sonic territory uncovered by The King Is Dead. The catchy, pop-oriented feel mixes with complex instrumentation and lyrics to create one of the best albums of their career.

Grade: A

The Vaselines (Music Review)

Enter the Vaselines cover

The Vaselines - Enter the Vaselines

The Vaselines were sort of the Velvet Underground of the late 80’s: Almost no one listened to them at the time, but everyone who did went out and started a band. Today, they are best known as “the band that Nirvana kept covering”. But last year, the Vaselines started getting more attention in their own right. Sub Pop released a retrospective of their past work, as well as their first new album in two decades. It’s late in coming, but the band deserves the increased recognition that they are finally getting.

Listening to Enter The Vaselines, it’s easy to see how they inspired Kurt Cobain and his peers. Though all the songs were recorded in the late 80’s, they sound like they came straight out of 90’s rock radio. It’s also easy to see why they didn’t make a splash on their own. The low budget, DIY performance had very little in common with the polished synth-rock that dominated at the time. All their recorded work, two EPs and one full-length, fits on one CD, leaving the second disk to be filled with demos and live recordings. (This second CD has a couple bright points, but for the most part, it leaves you feeling that you didn’t miss anything by not seeing them at the time. Perhaps that is another reason that the band didn’t achieve immediate fame.)

Most of their best-known songs are on those first two EPs. With very few influences to draw from directly, The Vaselines applied their low-fi approach to anything that crossed their mind. The results include fuzzed-out rock, folk, pop, and even a compelling disco cover. The lyrics are bratty, immature, and often sexual. The kink factor is raised by the way the boy-girl duo took turns with the lead vocals, giving the impression that they were double-teaming the subject of their song.

Their eventual album, Dum Dum, is not quite as memorable as those early songs. That is partly because a full-length release allows space for filler songs, so it doesn’t seem as solid as the earlier EPs. Additionally, by this time the band had settled on a more straightforward rock sound as the source for most of their songs. It was prescient, as most bands would be following that lead a few years later, but the songs don’t feel as varied or memorable as the early ones.

That’s not to say that Dum Dum was bad. Held up next to the songs it inspired a few years later, it still sounds great. Even discounting their influence, these songs are good enough to be remembered alongside the hits of the alternative years. And to be fair, they did experiment with their sound a bit on the album: “No Hope” is a smooth, compelling downer of a song, and “Lovecraft” is a (less successful) droner. But the album is best appreciated for its catchy, bouncing songs like “Sex Sux (Amen)” and “Oliver Twisted”.

Sex With An X cover

The Vaselines - Sex With An X

Sex With An X is a new Vaselines album, in the sense that it’s fronted by the same two people, and they still have a gift for hooky, memorable songs. But the days of The Vaselines are half a lifetime away for them, and they don’t seem to have any desire to recreate that time. The new album neither slavishly follows the original sound nor tries to re-establish their cutting-edge credentials. Instead, this is a comfortable, confident slice of adult-oriented pop music from two middle-aged people who have nothing to prove.

The sound is smooth, and the production is slick, in direct contrast to their late 80’s sound. In some ways, this feels more appropriate for the name “Vaselines” than the original songs. However, they’ve lost the kinky edge that also fit the name. The few songs that mention sex now sound tame (“Feels so right/ It must be wrong for me/ Let’s do it, let’s do it again” goes the title track), and the rest have been replaced by more world-weary breakup songs.

It’s still good, as long as no one holds them to a purist ideal of how the band “should” sound. The songs are not going to inspire a new generation to start their own bands, but if you’re just looking for good, memorable songs, the hit-to-miss ratio is honestly better than Dum Dum’s was. The singers still have a sense of humor, as seen in “Overweight But Over You” and “Ruined” (a self-aware attack on old, washed-up bands), and they cover a wide variety of topics, from “I Hate the 80’s” to “My God’s Bigger Than Your God”.

These two releases are both very good in different ways. Exit The Vaselines is a relic of an under-appreciated classic. It is no longer groundbreaking, but still holds up for anyone who wants more music from that era. Sex With An X is a collection of polished songs that aren’t necessarily trying to be remembered decades later, but that are perfectly fun right now.

Enter The Vaselines: B

Sex With An X: B

Goodnight Loving – The Goodnight Loving Supper Club (Music Review)

The Goodnight Loving Supper Club cover

Goodnight Loving - The Goodnight Loving Supper Club

I don’t know much about Goodnight Loving, and I kind of like it that way. In my mind, they’re a group of underachieving stoner friends who hook up the recording equipment in someone’s garage about once a year to bang out hook-filled, fuzzed out rock, This idea is probably rooted in my mind because when I first found them, they had nothing but a Myspace page and Amazon was only selling used copied of their CDs. Well, those albums are finally easy to find in print, and their label has even given them a webpage now (from which I see that I missed one of their releases – there are downsides to being an enigma). Still, The Goodnight Loving isn’t as well-known as they deserve to be. In fact, I confidently declare them to be the best band without a Wikipedia page.

The Goodnight Loving Supper Club retains the low-fi atmosphere that defined the band, but it is obvious that they’ve stepped out of the garage into a real recording studio. There are no sloppy single-take moments, and everything fits together with a professional precision. The higher budget production does a good job of approximating their low-budget sound, but the smoothing out comes at the expense of both the highs and the lows.

Speaking of smoothing out, the songs seem to be comfortably bland. While Cemetery Trails used its rambling pop sound to examine painful moments and damaged people without getting too depressing, and Crooked Lake was high-energy fun with a great basement-country vibe, Supper Club’s focus is on more psychedelic lyrics. “She gave me flowers that I couldn’t see” begins “Bike + Stick”, while “Summer Dream” tells a rambling story that fits the name. “Ain’t It Weird?” trips through concepts like “we poked out our eyes in a game we devised where we looked through a cellophane screen” and seems to forget them by the end of the verse, and “Sunnyside” is an energetic little ditty about waking up hungover. The songs are fun, but rarely memorable.

The Goodnight Loving continues to belt out their songs with a punk efficiency: They average just over two minutes long, with only a few barely breaking the three-minute mark. Supper Club includes two instrumentals, though, each flowing smoothly from the preceding track. This is a good trick on the band’s part, allowing them to flesh out the space they’re working in and provide the rambling feel that this album’s stoner vibe demands, while still making each track short and standalone out of respect for their punk approach. The whole album feels a little like that, in fact: Goodnight Loving manages to find new territory to explore without ever leaving the confines that define them as a band. While this may not be their strongest effort, it’s that guaranteed mix of consistency and experimentation that makes all their albums sure bets.

Grade: B-


Hank Williams III – Rebel Within (Music Review)

Rebel Within cover

Hank III - Rebel Within

“Getting drunk and falling down has taken its toll on me,” announces Hank III as his latest album opens. That message repeats throughout Rebel Within. Even his unrepentant hard-partying tracks mention “the curse of living out my songs”, and hard drugs only come up in reference to the damage they have done to him or his friends. Is the icon of the country-metal scene finally reaching his limit?

There are other possibilities. Williams and Curb Records have fought repeatedly, both in and out of court, and the label even released Straight To Hell under the new name “Bruc Records” to avoid the embarrassment of publishing the first-ever major country CD with a parental advisory label. Rebel Within marks the end of Williams’ contract with Curb, and he has publicly said that he is keeping his best music in reserve for afterwards. Perhaps he just figured that he would have to fight with the label less if he churned out stories about his suffering along with his hell-raising.

It won’t be possible to fully understand this album until we see what he does now that he’s free. In addition to announcing that his lifestyle is catching up with him, Williams also takes his songwriting in a different direction. With this album, a majority of the songs find him solidly in the “country storyteller” vein that faded from fashion a few decades ago. It’s a good sound for him, whether it’s a permanent direction or just a temporary swerve to remind pop country fans what a rich history they are missing. However, these slow, steady songs do feel a little out of place next to the wilder ones like “Rebel Within” or “Tore Up And Loud”.

Of course, it’s hard to ignore Williams’ claim that he is intentionally keeping his best music off of this album. There is a ring of truth to that. It seems that many of the songs either go on for at least half a minute too long or repeat lyrics in places where something different should have been written. The worst offender is “#5”, a mournful song about needing to give up drugs before they kill him. At four minutes, this would have been the emotional core of the album. Stretched out to six-and-a-half minutes, though, most of that impact is lost.

“Drinkin’ Over Momma” might show another glaring example of cut corners. For the most part, the song finds dark humor in its lyrics about a mother who abandons her family for a life of drinking. But in the verse about finding his father a replacement wife, the narrator uses two of the four lines to announce that “she’s gonna have to clean all our shotguns/and skin those critters we bring home”. I don’t question that hunting would be a part of this family’s life, but it hardly seems like it should be the only criteria the singer would mention. Those lines veer dangerously close to the hicksploitation that Williams usually avoids so deftly.

Fortunately, even Williams’ lazier efforts are worth hearing. He still stands out in the modern country outlaw scene that he spawned, and at the best moments, you can see that he is still as innovative and risk-taking as ever, while growing more assured all the time. “Tore Up And Loud” is among his best party songs yet (well, at least until the ending, in which he just yells about being free from Curb Records), and the storytelling style adds more variety to Williams’ songwriting toolkit. This isn’t the first Hank III album anyone should buy, but it’s still good enough to impress anyone who does hear this one first.

Grade: B-

Two From Justin Townes Earle (Music Review)

The Good Life cover

Justin Townes Earle - The Good Life

There is no doubt that Justin Townes Earle is an excellent songwriter. The only question is whether he is writing the best songs for himself to sing. 2008’s The Good Life may be a short 10 tracks (and 30 minutes), but almost every one sounds like a forgotten country-blues classic. The only problem is that he doesn’t sound like a forgotten blues singer. Earle’s young, clean voice is a little disconcerting, and the baby face on the album’s cover adds to the contrast. These are songs that deserve to be sung by a grizzled, world-weary sixty-year-old, not by a man who was in his mid-twenties at the time.

Admittedly, Earle has experienced all the pain that his songs hint at. By 2008, he had already been struggling with addiction for over a decade, and he’d started his solo career after his father’s band had fired him for being unreliable. I suppose that his family’s musical legacy, and his resulting exposure to music, explains why Earle drew on such different influences than would be expected.

Fortunately, the great songwriting still shines through. This album isn’t the classic that it would be if it had found the right ancient blues singer to give it voice, but Earle and his band still deliver the songs with confidence and skill. The songs cover the gamut from the fun, irreverent “South Georgia Sugar Babe” to the somber, Civil War-tinged “Lone Pine Hill”. The title track turns out not to be about “the good life” at all, but is instead a darkly humorous take on a broken man’s insistence that his life isn’t bad after all:

Well since you’ve left I’ve had no place to be.

I spend most every day doing as I please.

I got pockets full of money. Hear it jingle when I walk.

It’s the good life from now on.

Though it’s hard for releases on the Bloodshot label to get much mainstream press, I’m a little surprised that The Good Life didn’t achieve more crossover success. The somber, traditional sound is pitch-perfect for anyone who misses older styles, and it has little of the punk irreverence that would turn most people off from the typical Bloodshot album. (“Ain’t Glad I’m Leaving” is the closest this comes to any sort of outlaw country, but even that’s not a litany of crimes, just a light-hearted warning that people should be glad when he’s leaving.)

Harlem River Blues cover

Justin Townes Earle - Harlem River Blues

Two years and two albums later, Earle did achieve a little bit of that crossover success with Harlem River Blues. Not coincidentally, this is the album in which he has found a style that seems to fit his age and life experiences. Rather than setting songs in the general land of American history or heartbreak, he ties them to his current home of New York City. This is a unique approach: Not many people dare to write country songs about New York. Yes, Earle does say that he feels lost and misses the country, but the implication is that this is truly his home. It is a modern twist on the country tradition, but the assured songwriting makes it feel natural.

The title song is the gem of the album, and probably one of the best songs of 2010, period. Earle announces his plan to drown himself in the Harlem River with conviction, resignation, and a strange joy. The contrary, upbeat nature of the music makes this old-school country theme as fresh and addictive as any recent pop song. Unfortunately, Earle was apparently a bit too aware of how strong “Harlem River Blues” was. In addition to naming his album after it, he also made it the opening track, despite how strong it would have sounded as a follow-up to almost any song on the album. (Seriously: I worked it into a mix CD recently, and its rich opening riff makes an effective transition from just about anything.) As a bookend, the album ends with an off-key reprise that feels more like padding than a reminder of the previous high point.

That’s not to say that the other songs are bad. “One More Night In Brooklyn” follows up “Harlem River Blues” with the declaration that maybe he can learn to live in the city after all, while “Working For The MTA” combines that urban theme with traditional train songs to create a simple but powerful tale of longing. From the somber “Christchurch Woman” to the joyful “Move Over Mama”, he covers a wide range of topics, even if the musical style is a little repetitive by the end.

Unlike The Good Life, this album feels appropriate to Earle’s life. He still covers old bluesy themes like depression or wanderlust (“Slippin’ And Slidin'” and “Wanderin'”, respectively), but now they are definitely rooted in his personal experiences. Over all, the songwriting doesn’t stand up to the high standard set on The Good Life, but the results actually work better because they feel so appropriate for the singer. If this album weren’t so short (10 tracks and 30 minutes, just like The Good Life, if you ignore the reprise at the end) with a couple of fillers, this would be an A-level album. Now that Earle has established his unique path, I expect that he’ll soon be able to apply that classic songwriting to it consistently. When he does, the results will truly be great.

The Good Life: B

Harlem River Blues: B+