This release might mean just a little bit more to Justin Townes Earle. The harder you work for things, the more value they tend to hold. After concluding a five-album contract with the scrappy and street-accredited independent label Bloodshot Records, Justin Townes Earle moved on to what he hoped would be greener pastures, and quickly got his nose pushed in. Earle saddled up with British-based label Communion Records owned in part by Ben Lovett—the accordion and keyboard player of Mumford & Sons. The situation got sideways between Justin and Communion when the label required him to turn in 30 tracks that they could then cull through and select what they wanted to release. Earle would have none of it, and went into rebellion mode, resulting in his eventual extraction from Communion to release this new album Single Mothers through California-based label Vagrant.
For starters, the cover art for this album deserves to be commended. Such a lost art in this digital age, artists go into projects having no clue how to sync up their expression with the first image listeners see to prepare them for the experience. The defiance in the eyes of these two youngsters, the innocence at believing their intertwined lives will remain this way forever, and the wonder and promise the whole scene evokes is something worthy of individual praise. It stimulates the mind and imagination, readying them to receive Justin’s musical notions with more of an agape consciousness.
It may seem hard to sense Justin Townes Earle as a seasoned artist since he’s the son of an established performer and still resides in his early 30’s, but this is Earle’s sixth overall project. He’s already spent years out on the road, and he’s already been anointed by Americana’s independent industry. He won the Americana Music Award for Emerging Artist half a decade ago, and now he draws large crowds across the country and world as an Americana stalwart, and a leader of the subgenre’s second generation.
The occasion of Earle’s sixth album also sees the songwriter settling into his established sound for better or worse. Where in his early days Justin would swing from influences in the country and bluegrass worlds to songs more fit for folk distinction, and then chart into the blues and even a more soulful Motown sound, now Earle seems to understand what he does best, and doesn’t venture too far away from it. Though you may still hear the moan of the steel guitar in places, or the cajoling of his eclectic and signature style of playing the acoustic guitar with heavy plucking and strumming, really Justin Townes Earle, the singer and producer, has settled into a firm pocket of finding the heartbeat of black Memphis and Motown and reviving it for the modern ear.
Placing aside the songwriting effort for a second, this steadiness has made Earle’s compositions comfortable to the ear, but also somewhat predictable. During the transition of the first two songs on Single Mothers, you almost have to look at the display of your media device to be assured the first song isn’t actually repeating in the way the two tracks sound so similar. The album is fairly straightforward throughout with the guitar tone, brushes on snare, and a similar style to Earle’s voice, with some notable exceptions.
As Justin Townes Earle will tell you, he’s a songwriter first, and that is what the listener should clue in on most intently on a JTE project. The production and instrumentation is simply the clothing. But in this established sound Justin has sired over his last few albums, you tend to miss Earle’s other signature attribute, which is his solo stylings. Justin Townes Earle doesn’t need a band. His songs, his voice, and his clawhammer hybrid-style plucking on a parlor-sized guitar is sound enough to send hearts pounding. The music on Single Mothers at times feels like it gets in the way of the experience, while also being a little unimaginative and undercooked if he was going to go for the full band sound. When he opens up the space, like he does in the magnificent “Picture In A Drawer,” the composition comes alive. Or when the backing band is allowed to step out a little bit more like on the final track “Burning Pictures,” you find a little more energy drawn from Earle’s original idea. In the middle though, you feel like Justin’s inspiration is represented a little thinly.
What works here the best are the songs themselves, speaking cohesively about a forlornness towards past memories and experiences. The title of Single Mothers speaks very personally to Earle’s own narrative as a boy growing up, abandoned by his father, and now looking at the world through the eyes those experiences forged. “My Baby Drives” appears to allude to his recently wedded bride that according to Earle has put him in a very happy place. But he promises that he still has a lifetime of bad experiences to reflect on for forlorn inspiration, and it is this type of past-tense reflection that gives Single Mothers its singular, distinct, and wistful flavor.
The songs of this album very much live up to the still-emerging, but growing legacy of Justin Townes Earle as an award-winning songwriter. It’s just a shame a little more vision wasn’t brought to some of the music, and it’s hard to hear those few songs that you can pluck from the crowd and play as examples of his genius. “Time Shows Fools” though is a great specimen of how to express a timeless sentiment in an undiscovered way.
Perhaps in the rush and melee this album experienced as a result of the label issues, the right chemistry wasn’t found to make the finishing results reside in the ideal. But Single Mothers is an album that takes nothing away from Justin Townes Earle, and may be his most personal yet.
1 1/2 of 2 Guns Up.
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