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. But was that also his creative peak? Critics shrugged at his subsequent LPs while fawning over his peers like Jason Isbell and Sturgill Simpson. Thankfully, he quickly debunks any clichés about artists needing to be tortured on Kids, which marks the grown-up Earle's glorious return to form. The threadbare "Faded Valentine" is perfectly punctuated by bluegrass strums, blurring its vintage genres to a level of haunting timelessness, while on opener "Champagne Carolla," Earle somehow — over punchy percussion and soulful Memphis guitar — sings like Hank Williams covering Roy Orbison, easily embodying two earnest hound dogs pining over a passing woman.
And while he pays beautiful tribute to bygone eras on those songs, Kids' biggest highlight of all may very well be "Maybe a Moment," the sort of midtempo, fearlessly sentimental deep cut that Earle excels at (think "Rogers Park" from Harlem, or Midnight at the Movies' title track). It's catchier, and almost as straightforward, as anything on the mainstream airwaves, yet maintains just enough of Earle's vintage quirks (courtesy of the organ and the rhythm section) to help it also ring true to purists.
Songs like these sound somehow age-old and of the moment, deft and heartwarming enough to make us forget all about the debauchery, the comparisons to his father and peers and the lacklustre recent releases. Kids in the Street puts the focus squarely on the distance this talented kid has traveled down the bumpy street that is Americana. (New West)