Release Date: May 26, 2017
Record label: New West Records
Genre(s): Singer-Songwriter, Pop/Rock, Samba
Other than the classic Western shuffle "What's She Crying For," with its piano sprinkles and steel guitar swerves, Kids In The Street marks the emancipation of Justin Townes Earle. The son of original post-country maverick Steve Earle, much of the lanky songwriter's output has carried the shadow of his DNA, whether the laconic "Nothing's Gonna Change The Way You Feel About Me Now" or the languid Americana Song of the Year "Harlem River Blues." Working with producer Mike Mogis (Bright Eyes, First Aid Kit, She and Him) in Omaha, Earle's freshened his roots music. Vital, bright, ebullient, much has been made of the jouncing, wide-eyed pop of "Champagne Corolla," Kids' first single.
First of all, let us congratulate Justin Townes Earle for being one of the first songwriters to celebrate the humble but reliable Toyota in song. Sure, the Cadillac may have a more noble musical legacy, but in "Champagne Corolla," on 2017's Kids in the Street, Earle is eager to explain why the car (and especially the woman driving it) is worth a second glance. Second, let's note that "Champagne Corolla" is one of the very best rockers Earle has offered to date; the singer/songwriter is traditionally more comfortable with a subtle attack in the studio, but here he opens the album with a stompin' exercise in New Orleans-influenced R&B, and it connects solidly.
When Justin Townes Earle sings, "I know I'm lucky that I survived, I could be doin' 25 to life," on "15-25," it's no mere lyric. The former Americana "it" guy (thanks to classics like Midnight at the Movies and Harlem River Blues circa 2010) is of course -- like his superstar father, Steve -- notorious for his legal run-ins and former substance abuse, giving rueful gravitas to "15-25," a jaunty gospel-country standout from his new LP, Kids in the Street. Similarly weighty Kids highlight "If I Was the Devil" has enough sinful heft to make the song chillingly bluesy. Earle laudably cleaned up after his Harlem-era peak of debauchery.
Genre-hopping within the course of a single album can be tricky; done poorly, it can come off like a disjointed mess. Justin Townes Earle pulls off the feat quite nicely on Kids In The Street, demonstrating impressive versatility without getting tripped up by any single stylistic detour. It helps that the firm hand of producer Mike Mogis, known for his work with Bright Eyes, is on the tiller, and it also helps that Earle has written such a strong batch of songs.
If you follow any number of Nashville musicians or residents, for that matter, on social media, you'll notice a common topic is broached. Gentrification and the resulting pallor it casts over all that has made Music City USA so iconoclastic has become a hot-button issue over the past decade. Legendary recording studios, historic music venues, and landmark restaurants have all been shuttered in recent years.
Forming a trilogy with 2014's Single Mothers and 2015's Absent Fathers, J.T. Earle's latest teams him with Omaha indie-rock don Mike Mogis (Bright Eyes) for his rangiest set yet. "What's She Crying For" is a moaning honky-tonk weeper with pedal steel and roadhouse piano, "What's Goin' Wrong" is clarinet-spiked Texas swing impressionism, "15-25" is vintage New Orleans R&B gumbo in the Professor Longhair spirit, and "Same Old Stagolee" revives American folk music's original gangsta to an unlikely vibraphone melody.
A lbum number seven looks like a turning point for Justin Townes Earle: it's his first not to be recorded in Nashville (he decamped to Nebraska with producer Mike Mogis) and his first since settling down and getting married. Tellingly, there's a quiet contentment replacing the bleakness that marked 2014/15's companion Single Mothers/Absent Fathers sets. Never one to be constrained by the straitjacket of country orthodoxy, Earle infuses his songs with elements of classic soul (Champagne Corolla) and jazz (the delightfully breezy What's Goin' Wrong).