Out & About

The only thing that attracts rock critics' attention more than the promise of a free meal is an album by an unknown that comes fully stocked with Big Names From Other Bands; it's a sure-fire promotional gimmick, the guarantee of coverage from folks who'd otherwise put the CD in the sell-back pile and avoid all calls from wildly pitching publicists. Never mind that such strategies tend to push the Name Above the Title into the fine print; guest stars sell albums, or at least get them ink, and the two ain't necessarily one in the same. So, to get it out of the way: Tim Easton's second (officially released, anyway) album, The Truth About Us, is chock full of journos' faves: Jay Bennett, Ken Coomer, and John Stirratt (otherwise known as Wilco, sans frontman Jeff Tweedy); Mark Olson, ex of the Jayhawks; Victoria Williams, she of high-lonesome warble and, yes, wife of Mark Olson; and, on one song, violinist Petra Haden, late of That Dog. Much also has been made in the rock pages of producer Joe Chiccarelli's involvement, though it's a strictly critical fetish, since customers rarely read the fine print. Besides, for every Beck B-side or Stan Ridgway and Bangles and American Music Club album he produced, the guy's got plenty on his résumé worth forgetting: Tori Amos' hair-metal debut Y Kant Tori Read, Julie Brown's Trapped in the Body of a White Girl, Al Stewart's Famous Last Words, for starters. All of that's just enough to lure in the skeptical, but not enough to keep them around longer than 30 seconds. The music's got to deliver, otherwise you're left with nothing but high-priced talent languishing in the cutout bins.

Besides, when Easton comes to town, he will do so alone. The guests have departed, leaving the host to carry his own weight on this tour, and so the Akron-raised, L.A.-based singer-songwriter will stand on the Sons' stage holding only his guitar and the hope that he can find an audience interested in hearing his songs about people in such pain all they can do is drop to their knees and cry, cry, cry (happens twice out of 11 songs). Easton falls somewhere between Steve Earle and, oh, labelmate Brent Best (Slobberbone is also signed to New West) as a singer and, for that matter, a songwriter: All three like to write about pain, regret, guilt, and, well, regret, and they sound as though they were born to the same father (John Prine, without the politics) and raised in the same crib with Jeff Tweedy, but of course. Easton's less country than Earle and less crocked than Best (or at least his characters, most of whom are blessed/cursed with a whiskey-glass eye); he's pop-folk, for lack of a better description, in the middle of the road with the white lines and road kill. No doubt, that's why Chiccarelli rounded up Wilco for the chore of backing up Easton on The Truth About Us: If Tweedy's the heart of the operation, then Bennett's the soul, a guy who could rewire a Flatt and Scruggs sound until it sounded like "So You Wanna Be a Rock 'n' Roll Star."

But it all comes down to Easton's songs--most of which were birthed as solo-acoustic numbers on Fourteen in One, a recent collection of demos--and they hardly need to be propped up by session men. From the very get-go, they hit you in the heart and keep pounding away, till you can't tell the beating from the pummeling. At album's opening, Easton finds himself missing his girl, quite literally: They cross paths but never connect, as she's off with "the other man" while he sits waiting for those precious few seconds they might, but don't, spend together. "I'll never miss you again," he moans, leaving you to wonder if he's there for good, or she's gone forever. Like heroes Randy Newman and Townes Van Zandt, Easton writes so convincingly you can't separate author from narrator; his songs feel real, tangible, palpable, as though the heartbreak's your own and not simply on loan. You want him to be a better man ("Get Some Lonesome"), aren't surprised when he isn't ("I Would Have Married You"), and root for him to make good on his promise at album's end to grow up and act like a man ("Don't Walk Alone"). The words are good enough to render the music background whispers ("She started it up and stepped down on the pedal like it was his heart"), the music's good enough to render the words painful instead of merely poignant, and the whole package makes you wonder how damned hard it is to sing these songs every night.

KEEP THE DALLAS OBSERVER FREE... Since we started the Dallas Observer, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Dallas, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
Robert Wilonsky
Contact: Robert Wilonsky