Most people know Aaron Lee Tasjan as one of the wittiest, most offbeat, brilliant, weed- smokin & LSD microdosin Americana troubadours writing and singing songs today. And the New York Times, NPR and Rolling Stone will all gladly corroborate. But steel yourselves, folk fans, because hes about to follow his restless muse straight out from under the weight of everyones expectations into the kind of glammy, jingle-jangle power-pop- and- psych-tinged sounds he hasnt dabbled in since his younger days playing lead guitar for a late-period incarnation of The New York Dolls.|
Really, the roots of Tasjans new record, Karma for Cheap, stretch even deeper, drinking up the sounds of a Southern California childhood spent listening to The Beatles while riding around with his mom at the wheel of their navy blue Volvo station wagon back to the very first pre-teen year he picked up a six-string and started figuring out all the pretty little chords in those Lennon-McCartney tunes. Back to the pure, blissful unfiltered innocence of falling in love with music for the first time. But more on that later. First, lets ponder the brutish realities of the American Swamp.
Aaron Lee Tasjan says he aims to use his music for good, but hes no protest singer. And Karma for Cheap isnt some heavy-handed, didactic political record cramming a set of talking points down anyones throat. Its a finely tuned rock & roll seismograph measuring the dark and uncertain vibrations of the time in which it was created. A cracked mirror reflecting back the American zeitgeist in this foul year of Our Lord, Two Thousand and Eighteen.
When youre a songwriter, Tasjan says, youre dealing in truths and untruthsthats part of your commerce as a citizen of the world. And anything coming along thats threatening to blur that line is a threat to your livelihood as a working American.
Take it from Tasjan and Karma for Cheap, being a songwriter in the post-truth world of Trumps America aint easy. Tasjan valiantly wrestles with this new normal in songs like Set You Free (its a smokescreen scene and nobody knows whats realfake news!)
and The Truth Is So Hard to Believe. What will we do when we can no longer map the line between fact and fiction? When we exist in a world where the truth is unknowable and were at the mercy of liars and charlatans? Hearts in chains and hands are off the wheel, Tasjan sings in hypnotic staccato, tapping the collective cultural anxiety of all the rattled millions drifting off each night to a new American dream, one in which were all in a big red, white and blue camaro fishtailing down some winding tree-lined road in the bible-black dark, white-knuckle-clutching the oh-shit bar, accelerator glued to the floor and not a soul in the drivers seat.
The sound of this new record is a little more rough and ready, more raw than anything Ive done before, Tasjan says. Seems like a good time for it. Were living in a pretty raw feed right now, and a lot of these new songs reflect that. They deal with with being stuck in the deluge of horseshit every day. On social media, you see people suckered into getting all irate over some post that, in the end, turns out to be completely fake. We have to be aware of these mindsets, these traps and emotional pitfalls that send us spinning. Music for me is a comfort thing. And Im trying to sing about all this to remind myself not to get caught up in the game. There are a lot of people out there carrying the burden of this weird, twisted world were living in at the moment on their shoulders. So I tried to write a record that offers some comfort, encouragement and hope to those people, as much as its possible to be hopeful right now.
Karma for Cheap is Tasjans third LP and second for his label New West Records, based in his current hometown of Nashville. The record was co-produced by ALT and his friends Jeff Trott (Stevie Nicks, Liz Phair, Meiko, Joshua Radin) and Gregory Lattimer (Albert Hammond Jr.) and features Aaron Lees road bandguitarist Brian Wright, bassist Tommy Scifres and drummer Seth Earnestwith whom hes been touring heavily for the last two years.
While the stylistic shift from Tasjans palpably stoned 70s-country-channeling 2015 debut, In the Blazes, to his more sophisticated, introspective and lushly produced 2016 follow-up, Silver Tears, was relatively incremental, Karmas rocked-up Brit-pop- influenced Beatles-Bowie-Badfinger vibes underscore a significant departure. The album boldly reminagines these vintage sounds, pushing the boundary of what can be considered Americana. With Karma, Tasjan establishes himself as an artist who not
only evolves over time, but isnt afraid to risk reinventing himself completely from one record to the next.
Its always a goal for me to be able to not listen to the part of my brain that cares what other people think, and just do something really pure and from the heart, he says. I needed this album to have a sense of adventure and mystery, to feel a little shaky and dangerous at timessomething that wasnt the obvious choice in terms of what people already like about what I do. Ive come to realize that Im a searcher, which means Im going to be searching forever. Aaron Lee pauses and laughs at the notion, and whats in store for the rest of his lifeticket bought, ride in progress. Yep, this is never going to end, he says. No oasis, no safe harbor to stop and say, Well, Ive gotten here, and now Im good. In some ways its a harsh realizationliving in that type of headspace can cause a lot of turmoil. But if you can find beauty in the mundane... well, there you go. Ive definitely been making more of an effort to enjoy the journey.
For all the albums wrestling with social and political discord and the stresses of modern life due to the grand experiment of social media and the unforgiving tractor beam of the world-wired-web, Karma for Cheap finds its silver lining in the innocence of a wide- eyed kids maiden voyage into the electrifying thrall of rock & roll. The heaviness of the lyrical content is tempered by the joy and wonder of an artist reconnecting with what made him fall in love with playing music in the first place. The sound of it, the way it made him feel when he was 11 years old and it was all still as new as a fresh coat of spray paint from the can of some smug delinquent. That was 1997the year Tasjan moved from Ohio to California, and scored his first guitar and a stack of iconic CDs by The Beatles, Oasis and Tom Petty.
A huge sonic touchstone for ALTs new record is The Beatles Anthology, one of his childhood favorites. In songs like If Not Now When, Song Bird and The Rest Is Yet to Come, you can hear echoes of George Harrisons vibrant guitar riffs and Jeff Lynnes lavish production on those lo-fi John Lennon demos the surviving Beatles dug up and polished off in the mid 90s. Free As A Bird and Real Lovethose were my jams when I first started playing guitar, Tasjan says. I was learning those and a lot of other Beatles songs. And then Oasis came out with Wonderwall and I was like, oh thats The Beatles for my generation, and I became obsessed with them, too.
Perhaps the most poignant moment on Karma for Cheap is the anthemic, hypnotic Heart Slows Down, a tune rife with musical and lyrical references to the Beatles and Tom Petty, anchored by an unforgettable chorus with a Traveling Wilburys vibe that finds the sweet spot between Tasjans two earliest musical heroes. When I was a kid, my favorite CD to fall asleep to was Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers Greatest Hits, and the last song is a cover of that Thunderclap Newman song Something in the Air. From the time I was a little kid to when I was teenager, I used to listen to that song on headphones almost every nightI heard it in that space between wake and sleep so many times. And Toms passinghe was a really big hero of mine, so it hit me pretty hard. We were in Seattle playing a show when I heard, and it was a heavy thing to process. But all of those elements are there in Heart Slows Down. The chorus, I will always be around, is a reminder that all the good you ever got out of listening to this music is still around you. Youll always have that.
Christopher Gold is a Kentucky-born songwriter living in Wisconsin. Together with his band The New Old Things he has written and recorded folk songs, country songs, rock & roll songs, and everything in between citing a love for songwriters like Townes Van Zandt, Bob Dylan, Tom Petty, and anybody else whose work begins with paper and pen.
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