Music: Head Easton

Rootsy singer/songwriter Tim Easton makes good with his latest CD

Apr 19, 2001 at 2:06 pm
Tim Easton

There's a curious thing about the cover of Tim Easton's new CD, The Truth About Us. Right beneath the title and just to the right of the singer's name sits a row of three stars, as if the album were being rated right on its own cover. Of course, it's unlikely that the graphic was intended as a comment on the quality of the record within, but there it is, begging for interpretation. And even though I'm loath to grade someone's art with stars, popcorn boxes or erect or flaccid thumbs, I'd say that the three-star grade is not all that far off, though perhaps a little modest.

In fact Easton's record is what — without the use of dingbats or wingdings — I would call, "good." Unfortunately these days, in the hyperbolic world of Rock criticism where the blurb standard seems to be "amazing" or "brilliant," "good" sounds like a halfhearted compliment. It's not meant to be. Personally, I haven't had any "amazing" or "brilliant" musical revelations in awhile. And even though I've heard a lot of records I've liked better since, I probably don't listen to any of them nearly as much as I did the Alan Parson's Project Pyramid LP when I was 14. Of course, I had a pool table and a poster of Cheryl Tiegs in my listening room at the time and nothing but time to kill, but still, Pyramid is hardly a classic by anyone's estimation, even with the lovely singing from Colin Blunstone.

The point is, without exaggeration, The Truth About Us is a good album with several songs I like and a few I like a whole lot. And I know, because I've listened to the whole thing, which is almost impossible to do with this stupid, overlong CD format. I'm aware that it's archaic to fuss about CDs at this point, but God, give me a Side 2.

If there still really were such a thing as a Side 2, I imagine — and I think that the break in the title listings on the back cover suggests — that the second side of Tim Easton's new album would start off with "Bad Florida." This is a good thing, because the foreboding and atmospheric track, written by Ohio songwriter turned New York City newspaperman JP Olsen, is one of the album's highlights. Tim Easton, who recently spoke with CityBeat en route to Los Angeles, talks about the song and the songwriter.

"I think he's just one of the greatest songwriters going right now, along the lines of Randy Newman or a Hoagy Carmichael type guy," says Easton of Olsen. "He writes stories with a bit of a dark side and lots of room for the listener to use their imagination and figure out what exactly happened. And in the case (of "Bad Florida") it just happened to be extremely timely, with Florida being so much in the news (around election time). And anyone who has ever been there to the center of Florida knows that it's (long pause) ... it's freaky, yeah."

On "Bad Florida" and the CD's other 10 tracks, Easton is backed by Wilco's Jay Bennett, Ken Coomer and John Stirratt, and it's an extremely sympathetic match. Easton is a roots-oriented songwriter, with an ear toward innovation and a strong sense of narrative. And Wilco, now fully freed from any sort of No Depression pigeonhole, are simply, as Easton I think quite rightly says, "the greatest Rock & Roll band going right now."

Specifically, Easton was interested in working with Wilco because of the group's musical breadth. "They are kind of knowledgeable about all forms of music, from Roots stuff to more experimental stuff and Punk," says Easton. "There is nothing stagnant about them ... We can only hope that they are able to carry on and do what they want to do."

While The Truth About Us doesn't exactly sound like a Wilco record, it does have a similar, though perhaps more muted, sense of adventure. On the album's opening track, "Half a Day," Easton's breathy Midwestern voice sails along in 6/8 time over a sea of lonely piano melodies, strumming guitars and soaring pedal steel. The musical accompaniment is inspired and anything but conventional. But the whole song really hangs on one fatalistic lyric: "It feels like the night my plane goes down."

The traditionalist in Easton is showcased on the lovely Folk/County original "Carry Me," which features some fine guitar picking from Easton and Bennett and harmony vocals from Kat Maslich. But as elsewhere on The Truth About Us, tradition is tempered with sonic surprises. Behind the conventional arrangement is an ambient backwards guitar melody that runs nearly the length of the song.

Other highlights from the CD include "Happy Now," with its irresistible 12-string guitar line courtesy of Jay Bennett; and "Downtown Lights," with swampy slide guitars and power chords in its tremolo-soaked chorus.

Perhaps the album's finest track is "I Would Have Married You," Easton's Lucinda Williams-inspired ode to regret. "It did come out of leaving a Lucinda Williams concert," says Easton of the song. "I was stuck in traffic, and I kinda just started writing it there. It really reminds me of a Lucinda Williams song. And even parts of it seem like they are just taken right off of one of her songs. Actually it wasn't, but it's just kinda got that beat. There is a Country beat, but there's also kind of a Latin thing going on in there."

Despite all the well-known talent on The Truth About Us — Mark Olson and Victoria Williams also lend their voices to the project — Easton is never overshadowed by his musical accomplices. There are plenty of stars playing on Easton's album, but, perhaps in the interest of truth in advertising, they should have added one more to the cover.

TIM EASTON performs at Stanley's Pub on April 26.