I was a bit apprehensive about the impending release of Midnight at the Movies, Justin Townes Earle’s follow-up to last year’s phenomenal The Good Life. Though I will say without hesitation or regret, I am not a fan of what today’s mainstream media classifies as “country” -- pop music with a fiddle inserted to give the illusion of credibility -- I am, however a big fan of the “hills music” that was produced throughout the 1940s, 1950s and 1960s. The Carter Family, Ray Price, Hank Williams Sr., Johnny Cash, George Jones and Charlie Rich are among my personal favorites.
These giants of early country are clearly in the young Mr. Earle’s line of sight. Last year’s full length debut release The Good Life was a triumph, a showcase of Justin’s songwriting talent, his influences and his originality. He is a rare bird in a world that votes more for their favorite karaoke contestant on America Idol then they do for the Commander in Chief.
My biggest concern about Midnight was an attack by the dreaded “Sophomore Slump”, a creature that has laid waste to many a fine musician; many performers have begun their careers with a debut of both popular and critical acclaim, only to see the good ship Wealth and Easy Livin’ sink when a fickle world turns it’s back on the band’s second release.
Rest assured, the sophomore slump has been vanquished… in Earle’s case, anyway.
The classic influences that shone so brightly on The Good Life are once again front and center on Midnight; the album is truly and wholly American in its sound, like Grant Wood’s famous painting American Gothic set to music. All one needs to do to get where I’m coming from is listen to the vintage sound of “Poor Fool”. It’s lonely, honky-tonk vibe is Dust Bowl America to the core.
It is truly exceptional that a man as young as Earle possesses the ability to grasp the subtle nuances of music that was recorded at least two decades before his birth; then take said nuances a place them into his original compositions without it become hokey or a parody of a bygone era.
“What I Mean to You” is the classic tale of love that could very well be one sided. It’s structure is simple, nearly rudimentary but is at the same time, incredibly moving. “Someday I’ll Be Forgiven For This” conveys the torture of doing the unforgivable, but holding out hope for forgiveness. Ninety-nine percent of Midnight at the Movies tracks were written by Justin alone or with his band mates, a rare feat in the country music world today. However, there is one cover song on the album and it shows the range of Earle’s influences. The song is “Can’t Hardly Wait”, a tune originally written and recorded by the great Minneapolis rock band The Replacements.
In Justin’s version, guitars and bass are replaced by mandolins and Dobro and this time around the singer has a southern whisper to his voice. But the intelligence of Earle and his band shows in the fact that, though they did change it a bit, they were smart enough to stay true to the original feeling of a song loved by so many.
I will stop short at proclaiming Justin Townes Earle a “genius;” that is a term that is used far too loosely in the music world today. If Midnight at the Movies would have been as good or better than The Good Life I may have considered it, but it falls just short of the mark as I don't think it's as complete of a recording. Still, if Justin and his band of barroom town criers keep making records as good as these, I’ll have no probably calling Justin Townes Earle and his band “great” at the very least.