Tim Easton / Freelan Barons

Beat the Band

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Some singer/songwriters take years to accumulate enough quality songs for one album. That's not Tim Easton. The Midwesterner released two full discs -- one acoustic, one electric -- on the same day, and says he has enough material written for more. As its title implies, this one features a full rock band supporting him on a terrific batch of heartland ballads and rockers. Upbeat selections, such as the propulsive "Open Letter," ride a driving drumbeat and a cool riff any major act would kill for. Even though this is a self-produced affair on his own label (severing a decade-plus relationship with New West, where he didn't sell many albums but got consistently favorable reviews), it's professional sounding with a full but never slick approach that enhances already sturdy songs. Recorded in a Nashville studio during a five-day stint with a band named the Freelan Barons, Easton seems loose and in the moment, taking his time on the ballad "She Takes Her Time," and finding a rootsy '70s groove that feels as if the songs were recorded with the band playing together --likely since this is his touring group -- instead of laying down tracks separately. Easton's sly sense of humor is evident on titles like "Nobody Plays Piano in Athens, GA," a lovely slow waltz time entry where his voice and phrasing are reminiscent of Robyn Hitchcock's. The tune "Maid of the Mist" has seemingly no connection with the Niagara Falls tourist boat, but it's a melodic strummer with a chorus and hook that are instantly memorable, along with a driving beat, all in service of a song that wouldn't be out of place on a Tom Petty disc. "In the Midwest/there's not much to do/smoke cigarettes until you're ready/to quit again/I bet you need something else then," he sings on "Daily Life" with piano, electric lead guitar, and another chorus that sticks in your brain after the last note has faded. At nearly seven minutes, the closing "Just Like Any Problem" is the disc's most ambitious moment. It kicks off with Easton's earthy voice over a short, repeated prog guitar lick that seems like something Robert Fripp would cook up and continues as a love song to two women, both of whom he loves, as the band gradually increases in intensity as the track progress. If you're already a fan, this proves that Easton doesn't need a major label to produce music that's as good, and arguably better than, anything he's released. If not, it's an excellent place to start appreciating one of Americana's finer yet underappreciated talents.

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