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. With just enough innocent to invoke Chuck Berry’s girls’n’cars turf, horns kick in after the first chorus and the drums roll and beat down a groove that’s pure confection as Earle’s bottomy tenor extols the virtues of a practical girl.
That practicality reflects Earle’s life now. Married, 35, with a child on the way, the rambling blues “Short Hair Woman” swings as it celebrates low maintenance females. The B-3 chords hold, an electric guitar circles and then the build falls out – leaving Earle’s witness to what he wants in a woman out front.
Read a new interview with Justin Townes Earle on Nashville gentrification, country-music lore, and growing up with Steve Earle here.
Annexing classic musical memes offers Earle the ability to walk the line between tradition and his own modernity. “Same Old Stagolee” recasts the country blues chestnut over a strummed acoustic guitar, while the molasses speed “If I Was The Devil” equals a foreboding moan. But those aren’t the only shades of JTE’s blues: “Trouble Is” romps through a lighter kind of blues, while the closing “There Go A Fool” has the finality and throwback drama of a slow dance paced witness.
That old fashioned sweep informs “Faded Valentine,” a nostalgic ballad from a purer time. Looking back, for Earle, offers a glimpse to simpler, truer moments. That yearning musically tempers the Dixieland “What’s Goin’ Wrong,” which lives in a present inhabited by the oddity of things going right. Then there’s the reckless wooly bully barrelhouse undulation of misadventure “15-25.”
Even the light Merseybeat “Maybe A Moment” shines. Conversational, confessional and innocent, it’s an invitation over Farfisa organ and six-string bass to run into the night for one whole night of fun and sheer delight. Not quite a seduction, it suggests a time when “reputation” meant something and ragtag thrills—like the Thunderbird wine in the trunk—were as good as it gets.
Kids’ high point is the Jackson Browne-esque title track. It considers gentrifications’ wake, who he was in 1993, playing ball in a rundown neighborhood and embracing “low rent living, back when life was cheap.” Sketching a certain time and place, streets named, humidity felt and a market on the corner drawn, the bittersweet holds what was in a special reverence. What it becomes is anyone’s guess, but for the moment, Justin Townes Earle delivers an update on roots music that fairly glows.