Aaron Lee Tasjan–Karma for Cheap

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I’ve been a fan of Aaron Lee Tasjan since I caught him live at a music festival in 2016.  Great songs, great voice, great band.  Afterwards, I went shopping and got his first two solo CDs.  They were mixed bag at first impression, but the songs grew and grew, and finally I came to appreciate a cleverness in the lyrics and widely ranging song structures.  Last year, he released leftover tracks on Born at an Early Age, again full of his wry observation, humor and general positivity about life.  Good stuff.  a4221650117_10-e1536254833189

So I was really  looking forward to Karma for Cheap, the title itself suggesting he would keep pace with his knack of writing keen observations, but I was hoping he would capture them them on disc with his muscular touring band.  Ah, well, about that.  Not so much.

Instead, with a style previously considered “Americana” (perhaps the middle ground between country and rock?) and somehow likely shocking folks who have a stylistic expectation when they watch “Bluegrass Underground,” Tasjan released a pop record in an era where pop is irrelevant outside of a movie title track or commercial jingle.  As it turns out, noting that the Nashville scene was absent a psychedelic influence, he steered his band to the Beatles, as well as their influencers such as Roy Orbison or those influenced by them such as Tom Petty.  No fault there, really, as the Beatles can be heard as a strong influence in his earlier albums, and he puts those skills to good use as every song is an enjoyable change of style and phrasing. The band, and in particular guitarist Brian Wright, adorn his songs perfectly.  So what’s not to like?

Well, “If Not Now When.”  It’s a simple song, and there’s no room in it for his lyrics to flourish.  And despite the variety of influences, too many of the remaining songs are interesting for a couple listens then lose attention because the lyrics just don’t warrant it.  The whole comes across as a bit kitschy as he has proven he doesn’t have to retread others’ musical ideas.   

Of all the songs on the CD, “End of the Day” is probably the best, definitely the one I’d want to hear live without the polished production.  “The Truth is Hard to Believe” is a close second, with “Heart Slows Down” coming in third with its strong Petty-ish chorus. 

Don’t get me wrong, there’s plenty to like.  He’s an emerging artist, despite his journeyman credentials.  But, listen to the selected songs that made the “Bluegrass Underground” cut if you have the time.  There are three not-so-old songs that speak “artist,” but “If Not Now When” sticks out like a sore thumb…  a song anyone could make.  Ah well, the rest is yet to come. 

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