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Any folksinger worthy of the title throws some messages in with the music, and Easton, a singer-songwriter based in East Nashville, is no exception. But on his new album, American Fork, he does it in an entertaining way instead of preaching. His earnestness is wrapped in excellent musicianship, which happily results in his best album in a while, and one of his best ever.
Fittingly, he wastes no time in getting to one of his big themes, leading off with a polite diatribe on wasted time. “Every minute that you stare at that stupid screen,” he sings in “Right Before Your Own Eyes,” “and read all the chatter that you think you should read/is another minute sooner that your young old mind is dying.” That’s a serious point, passionately made, but the delivery is good-natured and it’s backed by some terrific instrumentation that includes saxophone and steel guitar.
“Killing Time” explores a similar theme in a slightly different way, incorporating a concept – “What do you live for?” – that Tim Easton has used in a series of social-media mini-interviews with people he’s met during his travels in the past few years. “Don’t hang there like a broken door,” he sings. “Find out what you’re living for/There has to be something more than just killing time.” Again, strong advice, but the tone is gentle and encouraging, not hectoring.
Easton takes a tougher tone on “Gatekeeper,” an angry blast at the powers that be – maybe in the music industry, maybe on a bigger scale. “Then you knocked me off my feet as you pinned me to the ground,” Easton sings, accompanied by sinister-sounding slide guitar and ghostly background vocals. “But I called you as you walked away/but you never turned around/Gatekeeper, go count your money.”
Easton shows his lighter side on “Elmore James,” a lively tribute to the pioneering slide guitarist, and the rollicking “Alaskan Bars, Part 1,” which recounts a series of nightlife anecdotes that one suspects might be based on actual experiences.
Another reality of the troubadour life – one Easton is no doubt familiar with – is its transient nature. In the album’s closer, “On My Way,” he sums it up: “Like the trucks out on the highway/like the seasons and the days/like the river that passes through your town/I really must be on my way.” The quiet tone and understated playing hark back to Easton’s sound on earlier works such as The Truth About Us and Break Your Mother’s Heart.
The full-band production on this album is a big jump from the minimalist approach of Easton’s previous outing, 2013’s Not Cool. Here he and co-producer Patrick Damphier use a broad spectrum of instrumentation. Jon Radford’s drums and Michael Rinne’s bass provide the foundation, while Easton handles the guitars with his usual formidable skill. Further color and texture come from talented Robbie Crowell on keyboards and horns, Russ Pahl on pedal steel and Larissa Maestro on cello. Backing vocals are nicely done by Maestro and fellow singer-songwriters Megan Palmer, Ariel Bui and Emma Berkey.
Tim Easton has spent a lot of years on the road and he’s learned a lot about life and music along the way. We get the benefit of some of that hard-won knowledge on American Fork, in a way that’s both thought-provoking and pleasing to the ear.