January 31, 2005 12:00 PM

OFF TO JOIN THE WORLD

REVIEWED BY RALPH NOVAK

COUNTRY

If Larsen writes and sings about the joys and lessons of youth with uncommon familiarity, it shouldn’t be surprising. At 18, he’s a lot younger than most of his Nashville contemporaries. But even though he just graduated from high school in Buckley, Wash., last year, this knockout debut is smartly written and beautifully snug, in a warm baritone reminiscent of his inspirations, Merle Haggard and George Strait. In fact, one of six cuts that Larsen had a hand in writing is “If Merle Would Sing My Song.” The title track is a clever tune about a man who falls for a girl on a flying trapeze, then leaves the circus for the real world. And “The Best Man” pays tribute to Larsen’s stepfather, who introduced him to country music. The disc is effectively modulated, from the touching teenage-suicide song “How Do You Get That Lonely?” to the sprightly “That’s Just Me,” which shows that Larsen can kick up his heels ingratiatingly. Every young singer should blend youthful energy and respect for tradition this artfully.

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