Justin Townes Earle, “Kids in the Street” (New West)
Earle’s new album is one of those rare moments where an entire career falls together all at once.
Think Chris Stapleton’s “Traveller.” Or Springsteen’s “Born to Run.” “Kids in the Street” has moments of both, as Earle combines the lessons and promise of his previous six albums into something new and wholly fulfilling.
Earle, son of country traditionalist and Americana pioneer Steve Earle, also carries the name of his father’s legendary folk singer pal Townes Van Zandt. With that name, how could he not become a singer-songwriter? Then again, with that kind of legacy to live up to, how could he?
It’s a birthright Earle has struggled with, detailing it recently on 2014’s “Single Mothers” and 2015’s “Absent Fathers.” But on “Kids in the Street,” he has embraced it, telling his stories with a sharp sense of humor and a newfound swagger.
The opening “Champagne Corolla” encompasses Earle’s new outlook. “She can run all week on just one tank,” he sings slyly, praising her sensible car choice almost as much as her striking good looks. “Goes to show you, maybe baby got a head on her shoulders.” The musical backdrop is a smooth ride, with a bit of rumbling guitar, so that Earle can show off his lyrics and delivery.
The songs, with help from producer Mike Mogis of Bright Eyes fame, take on a variety of Americana styles, from blues to folk to rock, all in service of his well-crafted tales. “Same Old Stagolee” is his twist on the classic country tale “Stagger Lee,” infusing it with a class battle. There’s a bit of Cajun spice in “15-25,” while the straightforward “Trouble Is” lets Earle’s self-deprecating charm shine through.
“Kids in the Street” is the album longtime Earle fans have waited for and the one new fans never knew they needed.
GLENN GAMBOA, Newsday
Little Steven, “Soulfire” (Universal)
If there’s something familiar-sounding about Bruce Springsteen sidekick Steve Van Zandt’s first new album in 18 years, it’s because none of the songs are actually new.
Not that that’s a bad thing: Starting with Southside Johnny & the Asbury Jukes’ first and best albums in the 1970s, Van Zandt has always written for others. Here, the Underground Garage satellite radio honcho covers himself, delivering soul-rock takes on tunes like the Springsteen co-written “Love on the Wrong Side of Town” (originally done by Southside in a similar arrangement) and “Saint Valentine’s Day,” which he wrote for Norwegian garage band the Cocktail Slippers.
Mixed in are touches of expansive Blaxploitation-era funk with the James Brown cover “Down and Out in New York City” and bold and brassy Chicago blues on the Etta James-associated “Blues Is My Business.” Van Zandt may be vocally challenged compared with the singers who’ve sung these songs before, but his true-believer rock-and-roll spirit and intelligence as a Wall of Sound arranger won’t be denied on this full-of-fire album, which is his least overtly political since the underappreciated 1982 classic “Men Without Women.”
DAN DELUCA, Philadelphia Inquirer
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• Benjamin Booker, “Witness”
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