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(New West Records 6043 As broadcast on WVIA-FM 1/22/2003)
The adage "there's nothing new under the sun" certainly has relevance to music, where true innovation is rare. But uniqueness comes in the way familiar ingredients are combined. This week we have a singer-songwriter who represents an intriguing combination of influences, including roots-rock, bluegrass flat-picking, and intelligent, if occasionally oblique lyric writing. He is Tim Easton, whose new CD is called Break Your Mother's Heart.
A native of Upstate New York, Tim Easton grew up largely in Ohio, near Columbus, and was drawn to music by his older brothers. Easton also spent a while in Japan while in grade school, where his father's job with Goodyear Tire took the family. It was there that Easton heard and became a fan of the Beatles, while later, his brothers turned him on to guitarist Doc Watson, who Easton claims to be one of his biggest influences. After taking up guitar, Easton was also drawn to songwriters John Prine, Lucinda Williams and Elvis Costello.
It was in college, at Ohio State, where Easton formed his first band, called the Kosher Spears, which employed Easton's acoustic guitar along with a washtub bass. The group did a good deal of touring, including in Europe. Easton also gained experience busking on the streets of Paris, London and Dublin, honing his performing style, which relied on his strong guitar work, as well as his increasing abilities as a songwriter.
Returning to the US, he had hoped to make a CD of American folk songs, but Easton ended up joining a band called The Haynes Boys, which released an independent CD in 1996 called Guardian Angel. While the Haynes Boys continued on and off, and later became known as Burnbarrel, Easton eventually made a solo recording, and released it on his own. It attracted attention in the music business, and he was signed to the record label for which Delbert McClinton has been recording, and at the end of 2000 released The Truth About Us which had guest appearances from the members of Wilco who essentially served as his backup band on the CD.
Now Easton is out with Break Your Mother's Heart , and it's a fine collection of rootsy rock, classy guitar flatpicking, and literate, occasionally opaque lyrics. On this CD, which was made in Los Angeles, where Easton is now based, are some major figures serving as studio musicians, including legendary drummer Jim Keltner, as well as bassist Hutch Hutchinson, known for his work with Bonnie Raitt, Jai Winding on keyboards, and steel guitar notable Greg Leisz. The treatments of the songs range from folky with Easton's flatpicking prominent, to classic rootsy rock. Easton is a vocalist with a degree to character, occasionally resembling one of the phases of Bob Dylan. He generally writes about personal relationships, and creates a series of characters who are a long way from being heroes, but are not without their redeeming qualities.
Break Your Mother's Heart begins with a song about Easton's current home. Poor, Poor LA, is the track from whose lyrics the CD's title is taken. The piece represents the distinctive combination that is Easton's music. There's the strong acoustic guitar undercurrent, the electric roots-rock backing, complete with the requisite Hammond organ, hints of melodic pop, along with Easton's characters living on the edge. <<>>
In a similar vein, and no less engaging is the following track Black Hearted Ways, with the upbeat arrangement contrasting with the lyrics. <<>>
Two of the songs on the CD were written by a friend of Easton's, J.P. Olsen who works as a newspaperman in New York, and who also wrote a lot of the music for Easton's former band Burnbarrel. The song called John Gilmartin is one of those, and it's a highlight of the CD. The lyrical style is a bit more direct, but the character development is no less astute. <<>>
Taking a bluesy country rockabilly direction is Lexington Jail which has a classic sound, but with the typical Easton lyrical twists. <<>>
The acoustic side of the Easton's music comes out on a track called Hanging Tree, a song about breaking up, and the conflicting feeling of bitterness and regret. <<>>
Greg Leisz makes his appearance on Dobro on the song called Amor Azul. The result comes across as a kind of semi-acoustic version of 70s L.A. country rock. <<>>
Easton is a multi-instrumentalist, and on the song The Man That You Need he plays all the instruments, including mandolin and a pump organ which adds a curious sound. <<>> He uses it for an extended instrumental coda. <<>>
The CD ends with its most acoustic arrangement, and a chance for Easton to show off his guitar flatpicking. The song True Ways is the other composition by J.P. Olson. <<>>
Ohio-bred, Los Angeles-based singer-songwriter Tim Easton, on his new CD Break Your Mother's Heart, creates a nicely crafted blend of literate songwriting, with tasteful, wide-ranging, roots-rock backing. While all the ingredients are familiar, Easton particular musical recipe is engaging, and makes for very worthwhile listening. His are the kind of songs that can sound outwardly familiar, but upon closer inspection are full of interesting variations, both musically and lyrically, and thus can stand up to repeated listenings, revealing something new each time. One could not ask for better backing musicians, with the likes of Jim Keltner and Hutch Hutchinson, and Easton himself is a versatile multi-instrumentalist.
Our grade for sound quality is about an A-minus. The overall mix is quite good and there is some interesting and judicious uses of studio effects like Sixties-sounding backwards guitars and piano. But as usual in the current rock world, the dynamic range is a bit lacking.
There are myriad singer-songwriters on the scene, as there are a plethora of roots rock bands. Tim Easton bridges the styles to come up with a solid, intelligent album that is appealing to start with, and will grow on you even more with time.
(c) Copyright 2003 George D. Graham. All rights reseved.
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