Originally from Ohio, Aaron Lee Tasjan first learnt to play guitar aged 11 by teaching himself Oasis songs. He moved to Brooklyn in 2006 to pursue a career in music and released his debut album, In The Blazes, in 2015. Now he’s releasing his third record, Karma For Cheap, the follow-up to 2016’s Silver Tears.
The album opens with If Not Now When, which combines a pulsing beat, a catchy chorus and distorted guitars. Tasjan’s vocals have a smooth quality to them with just enough edge and tons of emotion – almost wailing in places – and put me in mind of David Bowie. The song wouldn’t sound out of place on a later Beatles album and sets the tone for the rest of the record.
That 70s rock feel is an abiding theme of the album musically. Many of the tracks feature a similar psychedelic sound, such as The Truth Is So Hard To Believe, with a playful melody that belies its serious message. That said, there’s also a few more traditional-sounding tunes like the ethereal, acoustic guitar-led Dream Dreamer and the cinematic Strange Shadows with its Western swing rhythm.
What brings the whole thing together is Tasjan’s vocals. Smooth and soulful in parts but often subdued, his control allows the songs’ lyrics to co!e to the fore. Tasjan has a great turn of phrase – ‘your bones rattle like a dropped tambourine’ on Heart Slows Down being one particularly memorable example – and an excellent ability to balance light, bright melodies with darker, despairing words. However, he’s also able to truly let go when the track calls for it, showing off his powerful belt on the piano-led The Rest Is Yet To Come and soaring on the shimmering, rock-influenced End Of The Day.
One of my favourite songs on the album is Set You Free. The arresting intro and driving beat grab you from the off and I loved the honky-tonk feel of the piano. Tasjan hits some huge notes, whilst the chanting on the bridge gives the track a 60s protest song vibe. Honourable mention to guitarist Brian Wright for his standout solo too! I also really enjoyed Crawling At Your Feet, which reminded me of the Rolling Stones. Tasjan’s drawl comes out as he bemoans the torment of a lost relationship with lines like ‘the devil’s got my number and my phone won’t stop’ over a dark, slinky melody.
The album closes with Songbird, which for me sums up the whole record. It starts with a jangly, almost shuffling intro before Tasjan moves into the song’s message of defiance and resilience. ‘Don’t let the thing that kills you inside throw your worst into overdrive’, he sings in gravelly, almost sneering tones, backed by rattling piano and sharp, plucked guitar. The song puts me in mind of All You Need Is Love and ends the album on a hopeful note.
Overall Karma For Cheap is an album for fans of 70s rock vibes and poetic lyrics. Tasjan has crafted a record which combines biting social commentary with a call not to give up, and which will resonate with many listeners in the current political climate. Despite some of the tracks sounding a little too similar occasionally, it’s a well-crafted piece of work which oozes cool and shows off his versatility as a songwriter and vocalist, and should definitely be a contender for best-of albums lists come the end of the year.
Track list: 1. If Not Now When 2. The Truth Is So Hard To Believe 3. The Rest Is Yet To Come 4. Heart Slows Down 5. End Of The Day 6. Dream Dreamer 7. Strange Shadows 8. Set You Free 9. Crawling At Your Feet 10. Songbird Record label: New West Records Release date: 31st August 2018