"Hard Love and Free Luck" - CD Review

"And maybe this ain't no surprise..."
~ Aaron Lee Tasjan, Lil' Firecracker

No, it's not really a surprise I enjoy Hard Love and Free Luck, the latest CD from Brooklyn-based Aaron Lee Tasjan. I'm a huge fan of Aaron's lyrics, and guitar work, and have been since I first saw Autumn Under Echoes in September 2005, a few months before he packed up and moved from Columbus to the city that never sleeps.

What is surprising is how often I find myself listening to this album.

Aaron handed me a CDR of the untitled demos one night at Andyman's Treehouse in August 2007. Fourteen songs, roughly mixed, fresh from the board. And while they were as yet unmastered, they were masterful.

All the hooks, both lyrically and musically; great stories told in the songs, some of which were live favorites put to a full arrangement; other new songs I'd not heard before. The night I got it, a friend and I sat in the car, in the observation parking lot at the Columbus Airport watching planes land listening to the tunes. For months, I walked around listening to these songs on my iPod, laptop at work, in the car and played them for just about anyone who would listen.

Eight months later I was handed the finished, retail product. And was again amazed at how amazing these songs are. The album features a great mix of acoustic and electric guitar; well done harmonica spots (Lil' Firecracker, In My Hands) and a solid steady drums provided by Ramblin Rob Heath and Mark Stepro; and bass from former Bob Dylan bassist Tony Garnier and the mega-talented Catherine Popper (who's played with Ryan Adams and Jen Glass).

Tasjan is an amazingly skilled guitarist., that's not debatable. However, he stepped away and let Rich Hinman and John Kengla (Red Wanting Blue) do some additional guitar and pedal steel guitar work; and added Bruce Brody (U2, Patty Smith Group) on organ. Those musicians allowed Tasjan, in my opinion. to relax and concentrate on the vocals. That's where this album really grabs you. The words, the stories, just flow smoothly over the amazing music.

Recorded in Astoria, New York, by Kieran Kelly with assistance from Adam Block from Sony BMG and John Angello, who's worked with Son Volt, Dinosaur Jr and The Hold Steady, this is without a doubt my favorite album of 2008. The lyrics, music, delivery, production and recording are top notch. If you're a fan of great American music, this is not to be missed.

Must Have:

"Lil' Firecracker" • "Bedroom Door" • "Streets of Galilee" • "Hollywood Wives"

Skip: None.

MIA from the demos: "Johnny Darke, The Medicine Man." One of those story/songs that I just found fun to listen to. A throwback to the great 70's singer-songwriter story tellers.

Song by song breakdown:

1. Lil' Firecracker – This tune kicks the CD off with a great piece of American music. Ramblin' Rob's drums leading to harmonica, and pedal steel and acoustic guitar with love-song lyrics for a love neither returned nor appreciated. "And the freaks and the hopeless always know a good song."

2. Bedroom Door – A long-time live favorite; a throwback to those crazy teen-aged years of trying to find a place to get drunk and make out with your ex when you're both home for the holidays ... and really, wasn't that what most of us were looking for in those formative years? Kengla's electric guitar work here with the slide is such a nice mix with Aaron's acoustic plucking.

3. Sweet Angel – A nice sweet song about falling in love on the other side of the tracks ... "Record needle in my vein / I feel charmed / I haven't bathed / And I wanna start a family with you / I'm in the street / I'm in the grave / I'm not settled / I'm on my way / And I know how to sing those cocaine blues" ... Rich Hinman's guitars and Diehl's piano are amazing.

4. Streets of Galilee – Another long-time solo favorite that is recorded perfectly here as a solo acoustic track. And a great set of lyrics ... "But if you wanna feel the holy ghost then join the band and burn your clothes / The last great hope for rock 'n' roll ain't some barbie doll on a stripper pole / And I know every word to your first CD." Slowing down the bridge really hits the point, lyrically.

5. In My Hands – has a very unique lyrical pattern ... there's only line that's not three words long ... it has two. That rhythm keeps the feet tapping and the music just compliments the lyrics.

6. You Ain't Never Gonna Dance Like Me – A "Great Balls of Fire" type tune sure to get some feet moving across the floor featuring some great piano from Aaron Diehl and some of Rambin' Rob finest beats.

7. Hollywood Wives – Perhaps my favorite song on the CD. I love the acoustic intro, the band pickup, the way you can't tell if it's a story about living above your means, living with a porn star or being the fake husband of an older lesbian actress ...

"When they film you look so bad
Your make up runs but you're all I have
I love you for your money dear
Pearl earrings out from every tear
When we kiss it's just for show
Til it breaks my heart when you have to go
Your fur coat and your heroin
Your lipstick and your favorite sin"

This is one of two songs I always play for anyone I'm trying to make a fan ... along with Lil' Firecracker ... which became my daughter's favorite song and prompted her to ask me if Aaron is a professional harmonica player.

8. Queen of the Midnight Train – I like this song for lots of diverse reasons. I identify with it, I have those feelings of lost love and regret and uncertainty and those heart flutters when you see her again ... Heath and Popper set a great rhythm, Brody's organ is so silent it's barely noticable unless you're listening, and keeps a nice bed behind it all.

9. Valentine – Nice piano work here by Aaron. This is a great contrast and compare of a good girl and a bad boy in love ... and crisis. "And I can't seem to get you off my mind / But you can be my holy roller/ I would be your valentine" ... another classic story song here that just goes with the music to make a complete package. RIch Hinman, again, on the guitar just shines.

10. Ohio, My Dear – A nice solo acoustic album-ender that's both a tribute and nostaligic look back to growing up in Ohio ... featuring quiet shout-outs to freight trains, friends, shopping malls and tanning beds, harvest parades, and ice cream shops.

Aaron has Hollywood Wives, Lil' Firecracker, Streets of Galilee and Never Gonna Dance Like Me streaming on his Myspace page, as well as a link to purchase the CD.

You can catch Aaron live on his summer tour (dates), including at the Rumba Cafe in Columbus on July 18th

No comments: