The Drama You've Been Craving
Monday Feb. 26, 2001
Tim Easton: From The Shadows
Songs of love, loss and loneliness
By Michael Goldberg
Tim Easton has a voice you can trust, inviting shorthand comparisons to '60s-era Dylan or '70s-era Springsteen. Or even '90s-era Freedy Johnston. He has the slightly gruff, yet gentle, voice of an old-school troubadour. And like his predecessors, the young Easton sounds wise, like an old guy who's lived some life. This, you think, is a voice you can believe in, a voice you can lean on.
If it had come out a decade or two ago, Easton's album, The Truth About Us, would have been on a major label. It would have had some hype to catch the attention of the critics, followed by showcase gigs with free drinks for the media, winning over even more critics. With some luck, by his third album Easton would have been a major star.
But in this age of teen pop and vulgarity, subtle, understated artists like Tim Easton don't seem to get signed by major labels. There's nothing trendy about him. No hip-hop beats to freshen up his folk-rock sound. Just 11 good songs. And a voice you can trust.
The Right People
Still, the right people like Tim Easton's music. He's got three members of Wilco bassist John Stirratt, drummer Ken Coomer and Jay Bennett on various guitars and keyboards backing him up on his album. Also putting in appearances are former American Music Club pedal-steel man Bruce Kaphane, ex-Jayhawk Mark Olson, Tom Waits/P.J. Harvey sideman Joe Gore, Victoria Williams and Petra Haden.
Joe Chiccarelli, who has worked with U2, the American Music Club and Beck, provides expert and soulful production, fitting the music to the songs and the voice. "Get Some Lonesome" is mostly harmonica and acoustic guitar; "Happy Now" is a Byrdsy folk-rocker borrowing some of its melody from an obscure Elvis Costello song; "Carry Me" may be the first folk song to incorporate a mellotron.
The musicians frame these songs with just the right touches the breathtaking pedal-steel solo Kaphane contributes to "Half A Day" (a reminder that, good as Mark Eitzel is, the others in American Music Club pulled their weight too), and Gore's noisy, cascading solo in "Bad Florida."
You can listen to The Truth About Us over and over. I have the feeling this album, like Steve Forbert's Alive on Arrival, is one I'll want to come back to as the years pass.
Since I was a teenager I've looked to songwriters like Easton for help in figuring things out which probably isn't fair. After all, despite the star-making machine's best mythologizing efforts, singer/songwriters be they Kurt Cobain or Corin Tucker, Bob Dylan or Chan Marshall are flesh and blood. But their songs still mean so much to us. I can't tell yet if it's Easton's words (which are good) or his voice and his melodies that speak so eloquently to me. For a while I was thinking it was his voice. Then I hear "He's a shadow who wants to be real," and I'm not so sure anymore.
The Coldest Day
Some of Easton's stories here are dark. "Out of Your Life" is about a relationship that should be over, but isn't. It's about a guy who's cheating, a loser who's either already gone violent, or soon will. It's about a woman who should have walked out, but hasn't. It ends: "And he waited inside for the kettle to boil/ It was as black as his heart." No hope here.
"When the Lights Went Out" profiles a young man who "came into town with your sirens on/...Making enemies out of your dear friends." I think the guy overdoses "When the lights went out you were three feet high/ You laid down alone and you died that way," goes the lyric.
Some of the songs are less physical, but just as emotionally devastating. The singer can't connect with the girl he loves in "Half A Day" ("I woke up on the coldest day I've even known"); "I Would Have Married You," about a romance that failed, it seems, because neither of the lovers could commit, is just so sad.
We won't know for a while if The Truth About Us is just the beginning of a career, the first of a string of albums that find Easton maturing as a singer, writer and maker of records, or if this is as good as it's gonna get.
If Easton were one of his characters, it would all be downhill from here. But he's not. My sense is that this is just the beginning of something. His characters may be cursed with bad luck, but this singer/songwriter is already a winner.
Michael Goldberg is the president of insiderone.net. He founded Addicted To Noise in 1994.
© 2001 Michael Goldberg. All rights reserved.