The thing about TimLee3 that is both reassuring and disconcerting is their sound is so familiar and comfortable that by the time you’ve heard this album for the third time it seems like it’s been a part of your collection for 20 years. But then, when you try to describe just what it is you’re hearing, it shifts on you, suddenly, like the transmission of one of the souped-up cars that pop up on several of the album’s songs. It’s got the tattoos in a bad spot drive of rockabilly, but then, it’s too jangly. So, maybe one should file it under power pop, and that’s closer, but still, there’s that “I’m not from around here and wouldn’t want to be even if I was” vibe of displacement that fights against the suburban bedroom complacency of that genre.
Many claim to hear echoes of John Doe and Exene Cervenka in the interplay of Tim and Susan Bauer Lee’s voices, but to my ear, if comparisons must be made, one would do better to look to the intimate melodies of Buddy and Julie Miller, that worn-in, flannel kind of comfort where passion burns all the brighter for its lack of volatility. They’re certainly capable of kicking out an “asked for water but got a gasoline cocktail” kind of blues (see “Cut Rate Divorce”); but they really shine in that “I felt lost and reached for you in the night to find you there” kind of reassurance reminiscent of homespun country gospel (as on “Alibi”). It’s as pure as cordwood stacked for a winter’s warmth, a lived in, sometimes melancholy but ultimately satisfied vibe that is the music of a life fully realized. Spit, sweat, laughter, tears, and private smirks all shared: a recipe for a satisfied mind.
Devil’s Rope opens with a one-two-three punch, each of which hits a sweet spot. The band summarizes Saturday night in the small-town south via the simple two-line brilliance that is opening cut “Signal’s” chorus: “Fast cars and loud guitars / Local bars and goin’ too far.” It’s the kind of raucous, uplifting dance tune that Brad Paisley would shoot a dude in a ‘Skynyrd shirt to have written. The following, title track offers an ominous beat to accompany a tale of romantic obsession wherein one simultaneously hopes and doubts that the song’s subject (“devil’s rope,” i.e. barbed wire) is being used metaphorically. “Jet Boys”, the third track, is the album’s melancholy masterpiece, a sublime song of yearning both for escape and for the lost heroes that once promised it. The song harkens back to an era when Ford vs. Chevy inspired a more heated argument than Republican vs. Democrat, and titans like “Big Daddy” Don Garlitz and Shirley “Cha Cha” Muldowney fed the dreams of those caged in dirt-road towns throughout rural America.
Other highlights include “Monkey Dance,” a reminiscence of Tim’s former band, the should’ve-been-bigger Windbreakers, as they navigated the road of music biz temptation, and “Judging You”, which, with its cry of “Maybe I shouldn’t be judging you / But that don’t mean that it ain’t true,” really should become a staple in any good honky-tonk jukebox. Susan’s cover of Magnapop’s AIDS-era anthem “Open the Door” is an excavation fitting both the album’s exultant joy and its underlying melancholy. And Chris Bratta, the band’s third drummer featured on as many releases, provides a solid backbeat throughout, proving especially effective at amplifying Tim’s fuzz guitar via heavy bass and cymbal runs, as on “Says Baby Strange”.
TimLee3 is one of those bands that might remind a listener of a lot of other bands, past or present, while, at the same time maintaining their own identity. The more one listens to Devil’s Rope, the more that identity is revealed as an independent-minded, open-hearted rock and roll vision. Tim and Susan Bauer Lee are songwriters who can celebrate the good times while giving a nod to the hard times, because they make the good times all the better. This is an album you’ll still want to listen to 20 years from now.