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Justin Townes Earle Proves Himself With “Midnight at the Movies”

James DuBray | Sunday, April 5, 2009

Justin Townes Earle has been through, well, a heck of a lot more than you have. The first son of the rebel troubadour himself, Steve Earle, and the namesake of a country God, Earle was born with colossal expectations. Between his father’s escapades (seven marriages and a tough-to-kick drug habit) and his own penchant for getting high, Earle’s post-adolescent years weren’t a walk in the park either. Despite his somewhat recent problems, which included getting kicked out of his father’s backing band, Earle’s sophomore record seems to have borrowed a thing or two from fellow rebellious Southern son, Ryan Adams (“I’ve had a pretty hard life/ Such as easy heart”). Yet, Earle clearly hasn’t left his past completely behind. In light of his current sobriety, Earle appears ready to acknowledge his mistakes and move forward. On the album’s best track, “Mama’s Eyes,” Earle reveals, “I went down the same road as my old man” almost whispering beneath his brilliantly simple strumming. Yet, as the song continues, Earle gives a window into his recent optimism, “I’ve got my mama’s eyes/ A long thin frame and a smile.””Midnight At The Movies” lasts barely over 30 minutes. Yet, in this small stretch of time, Earle manages to provide a tour of raw blues and pre-rock country stylings, while producing an album that is notable in its cohesion. Earle’s second record could not be more different than fellow indie peer Animal Collective’s recent electro-pop explosion, yet it stands with “Merriweather Post Pavilion” as one of the few very good albums of 2009. In the middle of “MATM,” Earle includes a half-minute finger picking demonstration as much to brag about his playing ability as to dictate a mood change. The instrumental separates the aforementioned “Mama’s Eyes” from the album’s only cover, the conspicuous enough “Can’t Hardly Wait.” Townes Earle’s performance is a worthy take on one of Westerberg’s best songs. Initially it seems odd to hear a traditional country appropriator covering perhaps America’s greatest underground band. That’s until the realization hits that even though Earle’s album testifies to the heart of punk music better than any Fall Out Boy or All American Rejects record ever could. Ditties “Black-Eyed Suzy” and “What I Mean to You” display Earle’s ability to write darn catchy tunes, while songs like “They Killed John Henry”and “Halfway to Jackson” are a testament to the rebel son’s vintage country record collection. Yet the album’s opener and closer form the thematical crux of the record. The former and title track reveals an optimistic Earle’s take on what must be Tom Waits’ favorite movie theater. The latter, “Here We Go Again,” is the once in a career, rare view into an artist’s heart and psyche. Singing with more confidence than anywhere on his first record, Earle reveals his opening mind commenting on a feeling that lies in all of us: the fear that anything of worth will soon disappear, the three in the morning thought that we’re all destined to become victim to our failings. With his second record, Earle may be on the way to doing something his father has never done: proving himself wrong.