Album Review: Justin Townes Earle – Midnight at the Movies

[Bloodshot; 2009]

It can’t be easy, trying to forge your own identity as an artist when you’re the son of legendary country and rock artist Steve Earle and are named after another legendary country artist, Townes Van Zandt. Justin Townes Earle is working his way there though, and while he probably won’t eclipse his father’s or namesake’s fame, judging by what he has accomplished so far, he should at the very least be recognized as a skilled artist and gifted songwriter in his own right.

Midnight at the Movies is Earle’s second solo album, the follow-up to last year’s The Good Life. During the early stages of his musical career he spent time in a few different bands and eventually became a member of his father’s touring band The Dukes, from which he was fired for using drugs to such an extent that it affected his performances. He finally cleaned up and released the critically lauded EP, Yuma on his own label in 2007 and later signed to Bloodshot Records, who released his debut LP, The Good Life in 2008.

The album is firmly rooted in different types of country with various influences from rock, blues and folk, and at times it’s reminiscent of alt. country a la Whiskeytown, and other times it’s more classic country or Americana. Where Steve Earle’s music often pushed the borders of country into rock, Justin works with a more traditional country sound on this record. His vocals recall a young Ryan Adams or Gram Parsons, as well as his father, at times and while it isn’t groundbreaking musically it’s well-crafted and well-played, which is all you can ask for within the genres limitations.

While his father has become known for his political stance, which has deeply affected his lyrics, Justin keeps it close to home. The lyrics are focused on romance, relationships, family and, well, midnight at the movies in the title track. While he’s no Bob Dylan, his lyrics are well-written and often deeply personal, which is apparent from his delivery on songs such as ‘Mama’s Eyes’. Besides ‘Mama’s Eyes’, the obvious highlight is the cover of The Replacements’ ‘Can’t Hardly Wait’ (from one of the best albums of the 1980s, Pleased to Meet Me) which is given a bit of country treatment and an additional mandolin, yet is on par with the original.

This may not be a landmark album but it is a fine portrait of a young songwriter moving out of his father’s shadow and a clear step forward from his debut album. With Midnight at the Movies Justin Townes Earle establishes himself as a one of the top artists of his generation within the genre, and since he’s only twenty-seven years old, time is definitely on his side.