Aaron Lee Tasjan’s music career has been long and varied despite being just 32 years old. He started the band Semi-Precious Weapons in the mid-2000s, left them, and went on to play in a resurrected version of proto-glam punk act the New York Dolls and critically lauded (but commercially ignored) alt-country band Everest. Along the way, Tasjan moved from his home state of Ohio to Brooklyn and finally to Nashville and put out a half-dozen EPs of solo material in between his other guitar gigs. His two previous full-length albums have touched on country-rock and ornate 1970s pop, with an occasional dip into psychedelia.
That wealth of experience shows on Karma for Cheap, which has impeccable production and assured songwriting. But this time around Tasjan ditches most of his overt nods to other genres to create a straightforward rock record. The press materials for the album name check Tom Petty and George Harrison multiple times, and those influences show through quite a bit. The Petty side comes through in the simple but catchy songs and Tasjan’s vocal delivery, which has hints of a drawl and just a touch of nasalness. As for Harrison, Tasjan favors a snarly but jangly guitar tone that closely resembles a lot of Harrison’s mid- and late-era Beatles playing.
These elements are both on display in the opener, “If Not Now When”. The guitar riff has a bit of jangle and a bit of distortion and dominates the song from the get-go, even as drums, acoustic guitar, bass, and eventually, piano, all fill in the background. Tasjan’s lyrics are written as a scolding rebuke to a friend who can’t face the reality of the Trump era? Refuses to quit a bad job? Tasjan keeps the lyrics just vague enough that it’s difficult to figure out.
This lyrical vagueness becomes a recurring point throughout the album. It strips the album of a point of view as Tasjan speaks in phrases that aren’t quite clichés but don’t have much character of their own. It forces the songs to stand or fall completely on the music. In some cases, Tasjan pulls this off very nicely. In several others, though, the song doesn’t quite make it.
Second track “The Truth Is So Hard to Believe” is one of the winners. Its guitar riff isn’t all that distinctive, but that snarling tone really comes through during a great solo near the end of the song. It also has a killer pop-rock chorus. These are great points, because passages like, “All these troubles you fear / Or you put on your shoulders / Cross the river again / ‘Cause nothing is over” are not going to win any most memorable lyrics contests. Similarly, “The Rest Is Yet to Come” gets by on a great rhythm section interplay between the bouncing bass guitar and piano chords. It even has a circus-like organ solo, which is a really nice way to change it up sonically. But aside from the not-quite-clever enough title-chorus, there is nothing in the lyrics worth mentioning.
It goes on like this through most of Karma for Cheap‘s ten songs. A highlight like the mid-tempo “End of the Day” shows Tasjan at his most Petty-inspired, from the Benmont Tench-like keyboard playing to the lyrics, which mention a woman who “Traded her heart for a mansion on Music Row.” Hey, it’s a Nashville reference; finally some specificity! But then Tasjan turns around and gives us the vapid acoustic lullaby “Dream Dreamer” with the very next song. He shows off his best Everly Brothers falsetto, which is quite good, but lines like “You’re my little dream dreamer” and “I’ll be dreaming for you, so / Dream a little dream for me” do the sweet melody no favors at all.
On the back half of the album, Tasjan tries a couple of different things that mostly pay off for him. The laid-back “Strange Shadows” uses tom-heavy drums and syncopated rhythm guitar very effectively to support Tasjan’s surprisingly strong Roy Orbison-aping crooning. “Crawling at Your Feet” features a swampy electric blues riff that is the album’s most distinctive. Lyrically the song is about creeping evil, and the lack of specificity here works as an asset as we can’t quite tell is Tasjan is talking about a literal evil curse or just dealing with his bad impulses.
Tasjan is too solid at what he does musically for Karma for Cheap to ever really sag. As background music, this is a well-produced rock album where each song has its own feel and often has solid guitar riffs. Sometimes there are even big sing-along choruses. It’s only upon close listening that Tasjan’s lyrics become an issue. And solid songwriting and good guitar playing is a far cry from strong songwriting and great guitar playing. Ultimately, when my one-sentence description for the album is “would sound perfectly good as overhead music at the local bar and grill”. It’s not really a recommendation.