Music lovers and fans of folky alt-country stylings discovered they were in for a treat when Justin Townes Earle announced a September 2014 release for his then-latest LP Single Mothers. More exciting still was that the announcement of an immediate January 2015 followup (entitled Absent Fathers) was printed directly within the vinyl release’s download card. The albums were intended as companion pieces to each other, and given the delay between releases following Earle’s label dispute with brief partner Communion Records, it didn’t seem shocking to find a pileup of music ready once the smoke cleared.
And while that sort of news seems exciting on the surface (especially for an artist as solidly consistent as JTE), the payoff has been… lukewarm at best. Mothers delivered some of that classic heartbreak storytelling Earle is known for on tracks like Picture In a Drawer and White Gardenias, but Fathers flounders under the realization that it’s TOO much like it’s predecessor. Almost a b-side version of it in fact.
One of the best things about Earle over the span of his career arc has been the ability to effectively chameleon his way into different sounds from one release to another. On Nothing’s Gonna Change The Way You Feel About Me Now it was brassy Memphis blues, with Midnight At The Movies it was classic country blended with rootsy folk, and on Harlem River Blues it was all that with a hearty shot of rockabillied rock’n’roll layered in between. Absent Fathers just follows the lead of Single Mothers and consists of Earle either singing solo (which is when the album arguably works best) or surrounded by a session band of simple drums, bass and guitar.
And while there’s nothing wrong with KISS (keep it simple stupid), it’s done extensively to the point that songs from these two sessions start becoming more identical from listen to listen. When The One You Love Loses Faith and Call Ya Momma are pretty inoffensive as far as lead songs go, and Looking For a Place To Land captures some of that infamously moody JTE sentiment, but overall there’s just no spark to be found here. Much of the material is actually quite dull in this basic environment, which is actually more frustrating given that Earle’s consistent edge is visible, but wasted here with TOO much copy and paste. In the end Absent Fathers comes off as dry and lacking the need for much in the way of repeat listens. Good for the collection of a diehard Justin Townes Earle fan perhaps, but uninspiring as a whole.