Aaron Lee Tasjan circulates in the Americana scene where far too many acts come across like they’re doing their best Waylon or Haggard impersonation–or Ryan Adams (or all three). A genre that gets much of its appeal by looking back to a time before the digital innovations of today took away some perceived purity in previous music.
Of course, the Americana music is not unique in creating a genre out of nostalgia. Not even close. In fact, in many ways, Americana itself has roots in the Alt-Country acts of the mid-to-late 1990s. There was also the garage revival acts of the 2000s. The 1980s are being mined by seemingly everyone these days. Disco has also been reinvented. The grunge movement of the 1990s was obsessed with the hard rock acts of the 1970s. The punks of the 1970s thought their prog-rock peers were missing the point.
Like religion, rock, is always seeking a lost purity. And rock and country, also like religion, can sometimes get downright fundamentalist about it. For Americana, this lost purity has been found mostly in the country music from the 1970s. However, Aaron Lee Tasjan on Karma for Cheap is looking back to a different period, late-1960s psychedelic pop. And filtering it through the roots rock that, by now, is largely muscle memory for him.
Of course, Tasjan is not the only one recently to realize that 1960s psychedelia is worthwhile inspiration. So what’s separating his work from acts like Tame Impala, The Flaming Lips, or Of Montreal? One is the obvious filter of roots rock vs indie rock. The deeper insight is that the latter three acts are primarily focusing on psychedelic sound. Tasjan is interested in the structure of psychedelic pop.
Tasjan makes use of interesting guitar tones, and other sonic earmarks of the psychedelic-era, but his melodies and chord structures more often direct the listener to The Beatles, The Zombies, and Harry Nilsson. This is a great direction for Aaron Lee Tasjan. There is not much here that will be off putting to his current fan base. There are tracks that will fit fine on an Americana themed radio station. But there is also potential for pulling in new fans of say Jack White or Dr. Dog.
Most of my favorite acts have had a knack for reinvention. I have admired how some artists (The Beatles, David Bowie, Beck, or Jack White) seemingly can shift toward new sounds and influences, while always sounding uniquely themselves. Tasjan, while not yet the singular voice of those legends, is certainly taking the requisite steps to attaining similarly diverse success. Hopefully, he’ll continue to push us listeners, the Americana genre, and himself forward in subsequent releases.