Justin Townes Earle Midnight at the Movies

Justin Townes Earle Midnight at the Movies

3.5 out of 5 3.5 out of 5 3.5 out of 5 3.5 out of 5 3.5 out of 5 3.5

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Justin Townes Earle is a fast learner. Just over a year after releasing his terrific solo debut, The Good Life, the singer-songwriter returns with Midnight at the Movies, a smart assessment and refinement of what worked best about his first outing. It’s his willingness to challenge both genre conventions and his famous legacy that makes Earle such a captivating, distinctive songwriter. There’s a fearlessness in the way he confronts his famous namesakes on standout “Mama’s Eyes,” when he sings, “I’ve never known when to shut up/I ain’t foolin’ no one/I am my father’s son.” Even more effective and ballsier is “They Killed John Henry,” a traditional-sounding folk ballad that subverts expectations by offering something of a sequel to a well-worn piece of Americana mythology, rather than simply retelling a familiar story.

Earle’s primary points of reference aren’t especially obscure, but it’s how he uses those references that makes Midnight a definite step forward. Drawing from prewar folk and ragtime to vintage country and acoustic blues, Earle is among the few new artists on the roots scene who have forged a sound that is both immediately identifiable and progressive. Whether he’s borrowing the title of a familiar bluegrass tune for his own tale of a prostitute who “works the corner out on the block where she was raised” on “Black Eyed Suzy,” or finding the deep well of heartache on a flat-out fantastic cover of the Replacements’s “Can’t Hardly Wait,” Earle is making choices that help to establish his identity as a recording artist independent of the two men he’s named after.

That his instincts are so spot-on also makes for an album of real thematic heft: From the loner narrative of the title track to the shrewdly observed “Someday I’ll Be Forgiven for This,” Midnight teems with a genuine disaffect and melancholy. A few more hooks might serve him well down the road, but Midnight confirms that Earle has far more going for him than just his lineage.

Release Date
March 8, 2009
Label
Bloodshot
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