Folks who just hopped on the country insurgency train when they heard about Chris Stapleton or Sturgill Simpson may wonder what the deal is with a guy like Justin Townes Earle. Maybe they recognize the name and draw the connection to his famous father, but is he something special, or just another name in “Americana,” whatever that means?
The truth is Earle was laying groundwork for folks like Stapleton and Sturgill when those guys were still relative unknowns and the country insurgency was just a dream. Before either of them, it was Earle who was creating the buzz, getting opportunities we though not possible for independent artists, like performing on Letterman (where Jason Isbell actually played guitar for Earle as an up-and-comer), and had folks wondering if he might be the “next one.” Justin Townes Earle had the pedigree, and the songwriting chops. He was willing to speak up. He was one of the first young performers in American roots to incorporate horns and Muscle Shoals in his sound. It was only the intangibles that got in the way.
Since Justin Townes Earle’s promising start, he’s been caught in a series of side steps. There were personal matters and rehab stints. There was leaving Bloodshot Records for a label in England owned by one of the Mumford & Sons that ended up disastrous. The indie label out of L.A. that Earle ultimately ended up with was suitable, but certainly not the step up Justin surely hoped to take after leaving Bloodshot.
Though Earle’s sound may not be distinctly definable, its home is certainly Americana, and ending up on an non Americana label resulted with him being once removed from his audience. A similar fear persists about John Moreland, who decided he needed to go with 4AD for his latest record, which is an British indie label. Just because you’ve seen a name on the back of some albums from folks you respect and they offer you a sweetheart deal, doesn’t mean it will be the best home for you.
But now Justin Townes Earle is back in his native environs as one of New West’s latest additions, and looking to make renewed traction with his latest record, Kids In The Street. Sharply nostalgic, reflective, and in a mourning sort of mood, yet with an attempt to appeal to the modern cortex, the best way to describe this album is that it’s a very Justin Townes Earle. The sound he’s established over his last half dozen records, which is part ragtime country, part old-school Memphis soul, is evident in each of the tracks. There’s steel guitar, and songs with a very classic country style of writing, but it’s better to call this roots or Americana as opposed to country and end up being criticized for the lack of twang.
Many of Justin Townes Earle’s records have been relatively short, and sometimes sparse affairs. His last two records only featured four personnel, including himself, and his now primary sideman, steel guitar player Paul Niehaus. Many of Earle’s records clock in under 28 minutes and only have 10 tracks. In contrast, Kids In The Street is a 45-minute affair, with 12 tracks, and a bonus of an acoustic rendition of Paul Simon’s “Graceland.”
Earle said what he wanted to do with this record was make it classic sounding, but with modern references. You certainly see this in songs like the opener “Champagne Corolla.” There are a lot of references to a 90’s childhood on Kids In The Street, but a song like the brutish “Same Old Stagolee” doesn’t feel modernized at all. “15-25,” which might be one of the most country tracks—at least in the songwriting—feels pretty old school too, or at least timeless in its context.
All the songwriting on Kids In The Street is sharp, though perhaps never finding that stellar moment you search for on a Justin Townes Earle record, and usually in the form of a song where it’s just Earle himself and his signature, clawhammer-like guitar style. He gets close with the title track, but never quite there. His slurred singing style also tends to wear on you a little bit on this record, where before it was his way of embracing the emotion of a song.
What Kids In The Street can claim is a consistency throughout, and for more than 30 minutes of music, which is something Earle has struggled to deliver in the past. “What’s She Crying For” and “There Go A Fool” are really smartly-written songs. There’s a good variety of emotions and textures here. Justin Townes Earle sounds healthy, focused, and engaged. The music is peppy when it needs to be, and morose when that fits the mood. It’s hard to discern an underlying message or musical expression with this record, yet it might deliver his most across-the-board quality performance yet.
Justin Townes Earle will not get the press buzzing with Kids In The Street. He won’t have Music Row shaking in their boots about what the record symbolizes for the future. But he does deliver a consistent and heartfelt effort that should remind folks that the gains in country roots were not earned overnight, and are deeper than the few names the press continuously harps on. Earle has been offering a healthier alternative for 10 years now. He helped turn the tide when the heroes under 40 were few. And he has a musical catalog that is strong and worthy of attention.
1 3/4 Guns Up (7.5/10)
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