Elmore Leonard may be dead, but his 10 rules of writing are not (keep your explanation points under control!). Tim Easton is very much alive, and has a comparative three rules he gives to young songwriters (you can read them in full here, and the rules seem generally like a good plan even if you’re not a songwriter). An example of the advice he kindly provides is “you don’t have to live life the way you have been taught you should, unless you would like to end up working in a cubicle”.
Those of us who find ourselves in cubicles can rely on art and popular culture to get us by, to remind us that there is hope beyond, and more to life than aspiring to live the yuppie dream and buying the latest white Range Rover. If we can’t travel, as Easton suggests (rule two), music and literature can fortunately take us somewhere else, to Robert’s Western World on Lower Broadway in Nashville for instance, which Easton stumbled into himself one night after coming out the back stage door of the Ryman Auditorium, to hear the locals “killing it” on stage. He found the modern, vintage sound he wanted in JD Simo on guitar and Joe Fick on upright bass and asked them to play on what would become Not Cool.
So why is Not Cool very cool indeed? Yes, the sound of the record is as one would hope, like you’re having a good, drunken time with your gang in a bar on a Friday night. But it’s also the experience of the stories that rings true, in accordance with Easton’s suggestion to “get laid / fall in love / get your heart broken”. You can’t fake authenticity, and this album’s gritty, tough view of the world could only come out of having lived a little. “Don’t Lie” kicks the album open with the story of a combustible couple enveloped in a world of lies, the guitar emulating all the sneaking around. On the face of it, it seems like naughty fun because of the infectious rhythmic groove, but the guitar also manages to interject at just the right moments as a warning, “it’s going to come back on you”. Karma?
The music of “Troubled Times” puts us in a hot, swinging club. Your new girlfriend or boyfriend is swooshing around the dance floor with you. You feel as cool and smart as the Elmore Leonard novel on your bedside table at home–“for someone who doesn’t know much about maps / you sure you know your way ‘round this town”. Okay, we’re in troubled times generally, and sometimes in these circumstances it can seem hard to let loose, but we’re told not to worry and the music backs this up. In the club near the exit, there’s a girl (described in “Lickety Split”) who rolls her eyes when you ask her name. She likes to stay up dancing all night just like us, but she’s unusual, looking for something different. She’s “had enough of the average man / she needs a heavy hand”, and the guitar shrieks darkly. Easton doesn’t make a judgment about her (and I bet she doesn’t own a Range Rover), she’s just there with us, cool and wild, though she’d probably prefer to be dancing to Iggy Pop.
“Tired and Hungry” ramps things up even more; the sweat is dripping down the ceiling in the club. In your head you’ve turned into Austin Powers, or at least you’re dancing like him, because the music is drivingly sexual, the guitar-playing frantic and “somewhere somebody’s getting hitched / I hope they’re dancing all night long”. The riffs are awesome.
“Hey Little Doggie” sounds like a cover of a classic blues song, and fits in perfectly with the overall proposition–“maybe you got a tight leash / but you don’t need to turn on me….let’s kick off the chains and get high on the town”. You know these are good players because they’re tight, but they also leave space for one another.
Elmore Leonard is in my mind whilst listening to Not Cool because he and Easton share a similar witty, snappy technique. “Four Queens” is a composite of four dark, devilish, ultra-cool women, one who’ll “make you travel / because she knows just what it means”. You wouldn’t mess with any of ‘em if you’ve got any sense.
If you don’t have time to go the movies or are just too hungover to face it, “They Will Bury You” will do the job from home. This one’s like a noir film condensed into three minutes and a couple of seconds, with thundering, brooding guitar.
“Gallatin Pike Blues”, “Not Cool” and “Knock Out Roses (For Levon)” finally slow the pace down after what is definitively an energetic romp, but by this stage of the game we’re ready for bed, or we’ll almost certainly fall over on our feet. Easton has a fine pedigree as a singer-songwriter, so the quieter approach is fine. But the reality is you’ll want to go back to the wild, hot places again and again because it’s so much fun.