Tim Easton is a lyric-fanatic's dream. His new album, The Truth About Us, is filled with a novelist's sense of detail and a poet's knack for just the right turn of phrase, one that says as much with the silences as it does with the words.
But for Easton who honed his performing skills while fighting to be heard amongst the other buskers in Paris, Dublin and London can't separate the words from the music. So would he rather have people quote his songs or hum them?
"The Bob Dylan side would say quote, and the Paul McCartney/Beatles side would say hum," he said from a hotel room in Cleveland. "My lyrics are probably stronger than my melodies, but every now and then I know how to put one together."
Fittingly, Easton teamed with producer Joe Chiccarelli, who's worked with U2, Beck and the Bangles, for The Truth About Us, and he's ended up with an eminently hummable album. Like the members of Wilco (sans Jeff Tweedy) who back him up on the disc, Easton bridges the gap between his folk and alt-country roots and Freedy Johnston-esque pop-rock.
While "Carry Me" (RealAudio excerpt) and "Get Some Lonesome" would fit nicely on a John Prine album (and Easton's gruff voice and phrasing sounds not a little like Prine), the chorus on "Happy Now" would be more at home on an early Byrds album.
Easton says that if people are going to pigeonhole the album, he'd just as soon file it under "Rock/Pop," even if that's not the kind of record he set out to make.
"I'll make an honest-to-God folk album one of these days, like the weird-folk, Astral Weeks [kind of] album," he said. "That's what I set out to do every time, but then somebody plugs something in and it gets out of control."
In fact, aside from the John Prine albums his brother played for him when he was growing up, Easton says he was a rock and roll kid.
"It's the Beatles/Stones thing," he said. "We use the Beatles and Stones to go backwards in to blues and folk music. The Beatles take you to Buddy Holly, the Stones take you to Muddy Waters. Certainly rock and roll came out of folk music."
In addition to his work with the roots-rock outfit the Haynes Boys, the Columbus, Ohio, native recorded a solo album in 1998 and an album with Burnbarrel in 1999.
And what about those lyrics, from the heartbreaking "I Would Have Married You" (RealAudio excerpt) to the Raymond Carver-ish, observational "Happy Now"?
"I don't like to explain what songs mean," Easton said. "Leaving the meaning wide open is more interesting to me. The lyrics are somewhat obscured in the liner notes for a reason."
Indeed, the printed lyrics run the gamut from the tiny to the illegible to the absent. "In the case of 'Soup Can Telephone Game Conversation,' I told the artist he could completely obscure those ones, and he did," said Easton.
That doesn't mean Easton doesn't want people to know what the lyrics are. He'd just rather they come by them by listening, not reading, he said. Without the music, the lyrics can't have their full effect.
"I feel the tension on this record," Easton said. "It's folk music, but the production brought some kind of tension to it."
Easton is on a short promotional tour, with alternate backing by Wilco and Cleveland band Rosavelt, with a couple of solo dates thrown in.
Tim Easton tour dates:
1/23 - Minneapolis, MN @ Bryant Lake Bowl (with Wilco)
1/26 - Columbus, OH @ Little Brother's (with Rosavelt)
1/27 - Cleveland, OH @ The Grog Shop (with Rosavelt)
1/20 - Cambridge, MA @ T.T. The Bear's (with Wilco)
1/21 - New York, NY @ The Village Underground (with Wilco)
2/2 - Philadelphia, PA @ Theatre for the Living Arts (with Wilco)
2/7 - Austin, TX @ Stubbs (with Wilco)
2/8 - Houston, TX @ Mucky Duck (solo acoustic)
2/9 - Dallas, TX @ Sons of Herman Hall (solo acoustic)
2/15 - West Hollywood, CA @ The Troubadour (with Wilco)
2/18 - San Francisco, CA @ Bottom of the Hill (with Wilco)