NPR First Listen: Aaron Lee Tasjan, ‘Silver Tears’
By Ann Powers
Here’s a list of shiny things Aaron Lee Tasjan’s Silver Tears brings to mind:
The snowball rolling down a mountain in that movie theme song “The Windmills of Your Mind.” The ice in Harry Nilsson’s glass in the middle of a bender with John Lennon. Bob Dylan’s mirror shades. The beat-up body of Bukka White’s National guitar. Iggy Pop in his silver pants. The light through the Reseda mall skylights where Tom Petty rides an escalator, singing “Free Fallin.'” The key to the glove-box heart Michael Stipe sings about in R.E.M.’s “Star Me Kitten.” The Academy Awards show spotlight under which Elliott Smith awkwardly stands. Holiday lights plugged into the wall, illuminating half the dive-bar stages in Nashville.
Tasjan’s second solo album and New West Records debut brings to mind all of these scenes, sounds and characters without dwelling too heavily on any particular source. A spectacular guitarist whose career has spanned punk and glam, Los Angeles country-rock and East Nashville alt-country, Tasjan maintains his eclecticism in songwriting that’s equal parts dreamy and droll. “I sing jokes and call ’em songs; nobody knows where they belong,” he intones in the gentle-flowing “On Your Side.” The jangly “A Town Goes Dark” is even more modest: “Ain’t setting the place on fire, but sometimes I can feel the spark,” he sings before breaking into a chorus of “oohs” like a lost member of The Monkees. Like his peer Josh Tillman of Father John Misty fame (whose bassist, Eli Thomson, produced Silver Tears), Tasjan is fascinated with the way people chase dreams of romance and success that they later find deflated or even toxic. But Tasjan is more kind-hearted and a little wiser, with a gentler sense of humor. Novelty-ish songs like the last-call marathon “12 Bar Blues” show real insight into humanity behind the one-liners.
A musician’s musician who’s put together a studio band that can roll with him from acoustic blues to garage-pop psychedelia to smooth Nashville sounds to lush Laurel Canyon fare, Tasjan knows how to enhance his lyrical eloquence with careful sonic details: the right amount of multi-tracking on a chorus, the ideal interplay between his electric and David Vandervelde’s pedal-steel guitars. Silver Tears has a deep, multi-layered sound that puts Tasjan in the same league with fellow Americana innovators Robert Ellis, Brittany Howard and Parker Millsap — paradigm-shifters who challenge any boundaries purists would try to put around this rapidly expanding genre. His lyrical musings are sometimes topical — he calls out homophobes and rich liberals alike — and sometimes hazily philosophical. Either way, his songs invite listeners into a dreamscape that’s both deeply informed by musical history and uniquely Tasjan’s. “All of this pretending is just a little movie that we play,” he peacefully intones, ready to float away on the light his imagination generates. Keep on gleaming.