Tuesday, August 30, 2016

CD Odyssey Disc 906: Justin Townes Earle

What is up with all the longwinded album titles lately? Here’s another one…

Disc 906 is….Nothing’s Gonna Change the Way You Feel About Me Now
Artist: Justin Townes Earle

Year of Release: 2012

What’s up with the Cover? Justin is the perfect dejected hipster, looking at the ground and thinking about how to make his outfit more boring in future. It won’t be easy…

Behind him a tough-looking woman wearing Lenny Kravitz’s sunglasses has finished her spray-paint job of the album title. “Come back when you don’t have to roll those pants up to make ‘em fit” her eyes seem to be saying, as she exits stage right.

How I Came To Know It: I got into Justin Townes Earle a year or so ago, and I’ve been buying up most (but not all) of his albums. This is my most recent purchase.

How It Stacks Up:  I have four of Justin Townes Earle’s seven albums. Of the four that I have, “Nothing’s Gonna Change…” is about equal with “Midnight at the Movies” (reviewed back at Disc 802) but for argument’s sake I’ll put it just ahead of it, at number three overall.

Ratings: 3 stars

As you might guess from the album cover, Justin Townes Earle is a world-class moper. “Nothing’s Gonna Change…” is at its best when he’s in full wallow.

The record starts out strong, with “Am I That Lonely Tonight?” The song is partly about one of Justin’s favourite topics; his famous dad (and regular subject of reviews on this blog) roots/folk artist Steve Earle. Something about his love/hate relationship with his father brings out the best in Earle the Younger. It should get tiresome over time, but it always seems to work. The honest conflict within the boy who once inspired his dad to write “Little Rock n’ Roller” is clear as he warbles:

“Hear my father on the radio singing take me home again
300 miles from the Carolina coast and I'm
I'm skin and bones again
Sometimes I wish that I could get away
Sometimes I wish that he'd just call
Am I that lonely tonight, I don't know.”

The next track is more up tempo, but just as rough lyrically. If Earle lays the guilt trip hard on his dad, it is clear he takes his fair share back when thinking about his mom:

“Mama I’m hurtin’ in the worst way
I got now money in my pocket, no place to stay
When I see you out in the streets
You never know what to say
But it doesn’t matter, momma
If you always look the other way.”

After these two strong tracks the album loses focus a bit with some good tracks, but nothing that grabbed my attention. The tunes on “Nothing’s Gonna Change…” have elements of soul that cuts both ways. When it works, it adds edge and bluesy hurt to songs that might otherwise seem trite. When it doesn’t work, it drowns Earle’s powerful lyrics in too much production and too many horn flourishes.

A good example of this is “Down on the Lower East Side” which has what could be a cool cross-section of organ, steel guitar and trumpet. Instead it adds additional instruments at every turn and with too many choices your ear ends up unanchored. There is a thoughtfulness expressed in the layers, though, and I suspect those readers who enjoy lots of production layers will like the experience more than I did.

After a bit of wandering, the album regains its focus near the end, starting with “Unfortunately, Anna” which manages to simultaneously capture wanderlust and stagnation. The song makes you feel that while the down-and-out dream more than anyone of getting away, they are also the ones who tend to get nowhere the fastest.

The album ends with “Movin’ On”, another introspective number but this one with a galloping bass beat. Earle wraps his earlier themes of maternal shame and paternal frustration into a single road trip song that becomes an introspective journey into trouble:

“Well I talked to my mom today, she seems like she's doing fine
Tell her I've been getting sick again, we both pretend we don't know why
She says 'one more drop of rain'...she swears we'll all be drowned alive
And she asked me how my father's been, we both pretend we don't know why”

If “Unfortunately, Anna” is a song about dreaming of getting away and going nowhere, “Movin’ On” is the opposite –a reminder that no matter how jaunty the tune or how long the road, you can't outrun your problems.

Earle seems to understand this, and “Nothing’s Gonna Change…” benefits from his willingness to expose raw nerves – both his and others – and his talent for casting old musical notions in a fresh light. This record falters and it loses momentum in places, but you’ve got to admire Earle for swinging for the fences when it happens.

Best tracks:  Am I That Lonely Tonight?, Look the Other Way, Unfortunately Anna, Movin’ On

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