Only 25 years old, Justin Townes Earle already has had a storied career. In addition to doing time in obscure outfits the Distributors and the Swindlers, he's been kicked out of one group for drug abuse, survived five overdoses (by his count), and cleaned himself up to launch a career as a solo artist. So when he titles his debut full-length The Good Life, he means it, and when he sings "It's a good life for me, from now on," he sounds like a man trying to convince himself more than the listener.
Of course, that's not the only baggage The Good Life carries: Justin is the son of Steve Earle and is named after doomed songwriter Townes Van Zandt. Neither figure is exemplary of the good life, although Earle's post-recovery output is a good testament to clean living. Just as self-destructiveness is in the genes, so is a personal approach to country music. Listeners expecting the rough-hewn country rock of Steve Earle or the dusty musings of Townes Van Zandt will be surprised to hear The Good Life, which borrows from older traditions: the honky-tonk of Hank Williams, the country swing of Bob Wills, the smooth phrasings of Lefty Frizzell.
"Hard Livin'" kicks off the album with a jazzy fiddle flourish that reminds you Earle's going his own way. "What Do You Do When You're Lonesome?" generates a crisp two-step momentum thanks to Pete Finney's slurry pedal steel and Skylar Wilson's excitable piano. Two songs later, however, the same approach on "Lonesome and You" sounds sluggish by comparison. "Ain't Glad I'm Leaving" sounds like another C&W throwback break-up song but hits pretty close to home: "If you ain't glad I'm leaving, girl, you oughta be." If Steve Earle and Townes Van Zandt rendered these sounds old-fashioned in the '70s and '80s, Justin Earle makes them seem positively edgy, especially on the closing "Far Away in Another Town." His own troubled history, this assured debut suggests, is just as compelling as his namesakes' legacies.
Nebraskan Joshua James has neither famous parents nor a particularly dicey history, although his own debut, The Sun Is Always Brighter, might suggest otherwise. In a raspy, straining voice, he sings about the personal toll of war on "Our Brother's Blood," about long-lost friends on "Abbie Martin," about rootlessness and wanderlust on "The Soul and the Sea." Drugs are a recurring theme, but unlike Earle, James makes it very specific, detailing his brother's troubles in "Lord, Devil & Him" and using doomed love as a metaphor for addiction on "Tell My Pa" and "You're My Cocaine."
If James is drawing from personal experience, it's neither as renowned nor as publicized as Earle's. But The Sun Is Always Brighter sounds convincing, despite being one step away from vanilla folk-rockers like Edwin McCain and Shawn Mullins. In fact, James comes across more like Josh Rouse circa 1998's Dressed Up Like Nebraska, with literate Midwestern songs dressed in adventurous arrangements. Piano and accordion illuminate "Abbie Martin," complementing the lyrics' nostalgia for old acquaintances, and "Dangerous" drips with pedal steel courtesy of former Whiskeytowner Mike Daly. The country shuffle of "Our Brother's Blood" comes as a bit of a surprise, especially considering the outrage of the lyrics, although the spartan "Commodore" ends the album on too conservative a note.
While he may be musically diverse, vocally James has only one setting: achingly earnest. He does it pretty well, his voice catching on higher notes, but it's still limiting on these 11 songs. It'd be nice to hear more shades of feeling from him, especially as he handles such weighty subject matter. As it stands, James can't summon the defiance to sell "Our Brother's Blood" or the mixed emotions to put across his drug metaphors. In his songs, the attraction and repulsion of narcotics and women create a compelling gray area, but his voice can only sell them as black and white issues.
— Stephen Deusner
Grades: Justin Townes Earle: B+; Joshua James: B-
Justin Townes Earle and Joshua James play the Hi-Tone Café on Wednesday, June 18th. Doors open at 9 p.m.; admission is $10.