Since Tim Easton released his first album, 1998’s Special 20, he’s been a critical darling of the alt-country scene. The reasons are evident: Easton is an immensely gifted songwriter with an impossible gift for melody; his voice is a blend of Bob Dylan sneer and John Prine grit; he can play anything made of strings and wood; his travels lend his songs a rare ethos, and he’s got that Tom Pettyian rock ‘n’ roll attitude. Sure, you could say the same thing about Ryan Adams, but Easton has none of Adams’ pretensions or childish attitude, and he actually cares about music more than adolescent daydreams of rock stardom (not to mention ridiculous self-mythologizing). This hasn’t gone unnoticed by his peers; his past albums have featured such icons as Jim Keltner, members of Wilco, and alt-country’s most coveted guitar-for-hire, the Heartbreakers own Mike Campbell. Somehow, Easton has forged the perfect career for any true musician: he’s garnered respect and accolades while steadily building a loyal following.
But while Easton may sound like the alt-country poster boy of the moment, his music reveals why the tag is so inept. His sound is not country, and he doesn’t care to forge a career as a simple counterpoint to standard radio fare. Buried within his songs are influences vast and varied, from folk finger-picking to sunny pop melodies to southern blues riffs to classic rock bombast. This isn’t uncommon for a songwriter classified as alt-country, Americana, or singer-songwriter, but unlike some of his peers, Easton makes music that sounds organic, revealing the common lineage of these genres. Appreciating his albums requires an appreciation for the roots of American music, and not in that “I’m-so-knowledgeable” manner that too many fans — and musicians — obnoxiously exude. No, Easton isn’t striking any poses, and he’s not espousing a movement; he’s just methodically building a career out of solid albums. Ammunition, Easton’s fourth release, reveals a songwriter who’s moving beyond paying tribute to his influences — he’s becoming an influence is his own right.
Ammunition was recorded over two years while Easton was satiating his wanderlust, and it feels like life on the road: immediate, restless, and inspired. Indeed, travel pervades the album, from the various genres that Easton visits to the topics that he tackles, which are the kind of introspective and philosophical subjects one would ponder while tied to the highway. In a mere 13 songs, Easton contemplates the liberation of political revolution (“Before the Revolution”), the serene beauty of love (“Next to You”), the hypocrisy of evangelicals (“J.P.M.F.Y.F.”), the deliverance of sobriety (“Dear Old Song and Dance”), and the dubious role of the media in modern society (“News Blackout”). This might sound like the anti-concept album, but the tracks are unified by Easton’s impeccable craftsmanship and curious passion.
Indeed, the diligent intensity of Easton’s musicianship is only matched by his lyrical acuity, which avoids superficial treatments of complex topics. “J.P.M.F.Y.F.”, for instance, is a weary plea to Jesus for protection from so-called Christians who use religion to gain power, acceptance, and wealth. “Jesus, protect me,” Easton begs, “from your followers / Like the ones who turn their back on dying / And laugh in the face of pain and suffering / They would kill in the name of freedom / Or the ones who manipulate the Constitution.” Harkening back to Woody Guthrie’s “Jesus Christ,” the song is overtly political, but more exhausted than caustic. Other songs reveal the same eloquence. “Black Dog” is not a Led Zeppelin remake (thank God), but an allegory about finding a place to belong: “Neighbors are getting tired / Black dog is in their yard / Mend your fence a time or two / Before you have to start anew.” Such poetic imagery is found throughout the album, proving that Easton can write in more than chords.
As on past albums, Easton calls on friends to help him with musical and production duties. In the gorgeous “Next to You”, Easton is joined by Tift Merritt, who adds faint backup vocals to the beautifully simple chorus: “Let me be next to you / I want to understand / Let me be next to you / Then we can watch the band / Let me be next to you / Under your ceiling fan…” Merritt’s voice is barely audible, which makes it that much more effective when you realize that Easton’s soft croon is floating on her sensuous purr. In “Back to the Pain”, Easton recruits Lucinda Williams to handle the backup vocals, and the match is perfect. Who else could sing, “Baby, don’t you go back to the pain” with such conviction? For that matter, who else could turn “pain” into a three-syllable word that sounds inviting? Rounding out the all-star assistance is The Jayhawks’ Gary Louris, who co-produced three of the tracks. Overall, the entire album possesses an unpolished, spontaneous feel, showing that sometimes less is indeed more. When the songs and musicians are this good, extensive production just gets in the way.
To be sure, Ammunition couldn’t be more aptly titled. Easton fires off 13 songs and doesn’t once miss the bullseye. In the mere space of an album, he provides an engaging synopsis of American music, jumping from genre to genre with the grace and agility of an athlete. Even more impressive is this: Easton is only four albums into his career, and has already amassed a formidable legacy. More than simply another in a long line of alt-country saviors, he’s making real contributions to American music. What’s scary is that he’s got a lot more ammo in his guitar…