After being toasted first and then either critically maligned or flat out ignored for a little while thereafter, Justin Townes Earle has made a sound on his seventh album (first for New West Records) that any critic worth his sand simply cannot ignore. After all the hard luck, Earle had some addiction issues and he has walked on the wrong side of the street but lived through it, and is still able to remember enough about the experience that now he can sing about it like a survivor and not a victim. Other singers have done the same including such venerable names as (yes) Steve Earle, Tom Waits and Waylon Jennings, and now Justin takes his turn too – with results comparable to that of some of the best on that aforementioned list.
“Champagne Corolla” beats the doors down to open the album’s A-side and instantly ensnares listeners’ attention there with some fine and slightly boozy and rocky rhythm and blues which is steeped in classicism and tipped in whatever the finest homebrew concoction was that Junior Kimbrough had at his bar in Holly Springs. In short, the song is a swingin’ and sexy strutter which is easy to fall in line behind. Earle (wisely) downplays his vocal here and lets the instruments in the song do most of the talking to really break the track through and, in so doing, showcases a new discipline which is instantly captivating. Only ten years after he started, Earle concedes the spotlight and lets listeners come to him rather than the other way around, and the results are both muscular of performance and brilliant of demeanor. That’s one great thing and, for their part, listeners will find themselves running toward what Earle is peddling here.
After that, the singer switches the dynamics around so he is upfront for “Maybe A Moment” – the second song on the side – and listeners will be sucked in immediately by the change. There, touches of the hard luck and heartache which made legends of Paul Westerberg and Jakob Dylan threaten to do the same for Earle, and he backs that energy with some perfectly sweet and syrupy sonics which will have listeners stuck like flies to the singer for the duration of the album’s running; after that, it doesn’t matter where Earle wants to go, he’ll have listeners following him.
… And some of what Justin Townes Earle does is better than what anyone could possibly hope for of the singer. On “What’s She Cryin’ For,” Earle lifts a neat and tidy “King Of The Road” motif to great effect and trips a terrific tango while addressing some of his favorite demons (drugs and alcohol) while simultaneously keeping them contained for “15 – 24” before glancing at some decidedly Tom Waits-ian color schemes (yellow collars and pale paper sentiments, mostly) in “Faded Valentine” which closes the side.
Some might claim that ending the A-side on such a sugary note feels a little trite and contrived, but those who complain are missing the point. Here, Justin Townes Earle is proving just how solidly onto sober ground he is because he never wavers from his angle and never tips his hand to betray weakness to listeners either. That sort of strong but cathartic stance is kind of intoxicating on its own and will have listeners flipping the proverbial disc eagerly to see where the forward motion takes them.
… And because it worked out so well once, Earle just sticks to that style on the B-side of Kids On The Street too. That doesn’t mean the B-side of the album is devoid of any thrills though – “Short Hair Woman” is a fantastic and lusty slice of rocky rhythm n’ blues while “Same Old Stagolee” makes the most of old-timey language and imagery and sets it against a very, very crisp and new-feeling arrangement before getting into the dark, sweet and lowdown with “I Was A Devil.”
At each of those turns, the singer owns his compositions and their arrangements and makes each work to contrast each other, seeming that much brighter. In fact, it works so well that by the time “There Go A Fool” sleepily stumbles out to turn off the lights and close the album, listeners will already know they aren’t finished and will begin the running again as soon as the needle lifts from the vinyl.
So, in the grand scheme of things, how does Kids On The Street stack up to the rest of Justin Townes Earle’s catalogue? Well, certainly the singer already built himself a name, but Kids On The Street represents another step forward within the singer’s career. So far, he’s already established a name, built it up and developed a couple of vices which threatened to destroy it, but Kids On The Street marks the moment when the singer grows up and learns that moving past all of that is possible. Here, he has discovered that making good art is possible without necessarily getting fucked up. That makes this album important all on its own, but that it’s a pretty decent offering in its own right makes it even better. Granted, there is room for some growth and further improvement that fans can rightly continue to hope for, but the first new big step represented by Kids On The Street is impressive on its own, too.
(New West Records)