A heart like lightning

Brianna Riplinger

At first blush, Tim Easton’s voice sounds like a generic bar band lead who worships Bob Dylan’s “Nashville Skyline.” But when you listen to the entirety of his new album, “Break Your Mother’s Heart,” you’ll discover that Easton and his voice become more and more intriguing.

Easton is capable of crafting unassuming, delicate melodies and clever phrasing, complemented by a soothing voice that rises and falls with the lines of his guitar melody (“Hummingbird,” “The Hanging Tree”).

In late 1999, Easton garnered producer Jim Chiccarelli (who’s worked with U2 and Beck) and Wilco (minus Jeff Tweedy) to back him up on his first album with New West Records. On “Break Your Mother’s Heart,” Easton enlists several guests, including Bonnie Raitt’s bassist, Hutch Hutchinson, and Mike Campbell, guitarist for Tom Petty and the Heatbreakers.

The gorgeous, sumptuous production by John Hanlon, who worked with Neil Young on “Are You Passionate” and on the soundtrack to “Dead Man,” places the greatest emphasis on Easton’s vocals. Sometimes multi-tracked or isolated, Easton’s vocals waver from light and sweet (“Watching the Lightning”) to rueful and determined (“Lexington Jail”). With the help of a brilliant, clean production force, Easton’s voice glides over the hushed guitar and piano tinkering.

Other ditties like “Poor, Poor LA” and “Lexington Jail” combine bluesy professionalism with a twangy innocence. Although they’re catchy, they come across as light and fluffy, without that raw bar band earthiness.

“Watching the Lightning,” Easton’s touching lament about a friend’s death, recalls R.E.M.’s similarly themed “Let Me In,” a regret-filled plea on the subject of Kurt Cobain’s suicide. Minus the swirling, chaotic distortion of R.E.M.’s song, Easton’s take on loss is hushed and regretful, yet hopeful. His vocals eerily evoke Michael Stipe’s vaguely nasal yet dulcet delivery. Lyrics like “When you’re watching the lightning, then I hope you’re not afraid anymore / the sky would only hurt you if you’d never left the ground before” are painful and subtly dramatic when set over emphatic piano and distant organ.

“Watching the Lightning” is a magnificent illustration of how music and instrumentation enhance the tone and complexity of Easton’s songs. Another example comes from the simple and sweet “Man That You Need,” on which Easton plays every instrument, including piano, guitar and pump organ. Easton chant-sings “Could I be the man that you need/well, I think so sometimes when I’m out of my mind” in a leisurely flow that drifts almost to a stop, then resurfaces with the rise of a few piano notes.

Easton’s album plays like an odd mini-evolution of an artist. Although the beginning tracks are bouncy and light, they lack substance. But as the album moves on, you find yourself being sucked into Easton’s quiet, haunting and simple melodies. These songs showcase his powerful vocals, which are capable of transforming the simplest words and humblest of phrases into eloquent understated hymns.

Brianna Riplinger welcomes comments at [email protected]