On his fourth album, Harlem River Blues, Earle turns his focus from rural backwaters to the Big Apple, where he currently lives. It opens with the country/blues title track, delivered complete with a backup gospel choir: Earle sings so joyously about planning to drown himself in the river that it almost sounds like a good idea. It’s an odd way to begin, but it sets an off-kilter mood that goes well with the album’s nomadic feel. While a number of songs are grounded in New York stories—a lovelorn couple in Brooklyn, a subway worker’s daily life—some of the more powerful tracks have a wider scope. One of the strongest, “Wanderin’,” pairs the story of a drifter with a catchy, circular melody. Elsewhere, Earle trades ambition for tradition: “Learning To Cry” clearly nods to the Hank Williams school of classic country, though it walks a line between inspired and derivative. For all its strengths, Harlem River Blues never comes together thematically. Like his characters, Earle never seems to know where he wants to be.
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