BY FRED MILLS
Although Tim Lee’s career stretches back to the early ‘80s—Southern popsters the Windbreakers were a mainstay of that era’s vaunted pre-grunge college rock scene—of late he’s been on an artistic roll, issuing a slew of records and working on several outside projects. But as prolific as he’s been, and as good as last year’s Devil’s Rope was (our reviewer called it the “perfect playbook when it comes to extolling the thrill and delight that comes from kicking out the jams”), nothing could’ve prepared fans for the sheer sonic and emotional wallop that the new 33 1/3 provides.
Recorded by Chris Schultz in Tucson at Craig Schumacher’s Wavelab Studio (Schumacher also guests on keyboards), 33 1/3 fairly sizzles from the outset, opening track “Baby Caught Fire” setting the stage in grandly anthemic fashion with a meaty riff, huge percussion and bassist Susan Bauer Lee’s sultry, hopeful vocals outlining her protagonist’s crisis of faith and its aftermath. Soon enough, up cues the spooky, bluesy, noirish “Our Lady Of the Highway,” ghosts of the Doors’ “Riders On the Storm” hovering as Tim Lee takes the mic to unspool a travelogue of sin, salvation and white line fever. “My rearview mirror’s bent and cracked,” he murmurs, in a stoned, haunted voice, adding, “I’m an artist, man, I don’t look back…” There’s a conversation going on here in these songs, memories of what was and what might’ve been, plus hints of what may still be to come. Significantly, all of the material is jointly credit to Tim and Susan.
The back and forth between the two singers is part of the trio’s appeal (not to mention their lush, intuitive harmonies), offering a yin/yang quality that elevates the material beyond mere pop songcraft. Too, with a righteously solid rhythm section in Susan and drummer Chris Bratta freeing Tim to explore sundry guitar textures, from 12-string to Telecaster twang to flat-out blazing psychedelia, you’ve got a sound that at times borders on huge, belying the group’s “mere” 3-piece status.
Oh, and for all of us greying Windbreakers fans, several cuts here hearken directly to that combo’s intuitive meshing of multiple pop eras. There’s the tambourine-powered Rickenbacker jangle of “Photo Booth,” as gorgeous and pristine as a vintage Byrds tune reinterpreted by the Flamin’ Groovies, while “Shut Up and Kiss Me,” with its pumping organ, bluesy-glammy guitar riff and throbbing vibe, suggests T. Rex on a surf bender. With 11 tracks total and not a single one even remotely inferior to another—and having listened to the album 20 times or more now, easily—your humble reviewer feels pretty good about awarding it a 5-out-of-5 star rating.
Incidentally, it might be worth noting that in the press materials accompanying 33 1/3 we learn that the title stems not just from the fact that albums spin at speed of 33 1/3; the Lees are about to mark being married for 33 and one-third years. That’s a lengthy—and by my way of thinking, beautiful—relationship by any estimation, whether we’re talking romantic, professional, or both. Knowing that, certain songs here take on additional resonance. “Photo Booth,” for example, celebrates some of the small pleasures that come from being together—“Meet me in the photo booth,” they harmonize, “Set the dial to black and white. Look into the camera, let ‘em see you smile!” And in twangabilly stomper “(Let’s Do) Something Stupid” Tim announces to his paramour, lustily, “Let’s do something stupid, baby/ There’s many a line to be crossed/ The back roads are a-calling, baby/ There’s plenty of time to get lost.” To which Susan replies, just as eagerly, “Let’s stay out a little too late, baby/ We’ll meet the sun when it gets here…” Then the pair, singing together, concludes, succinctly, “When the work’s all done and the day is through/ I just wanna be next to you.” Silly and simplistic, right? Well, if that ain’t what love’s about, I don’t know what is.
I’m hoisting a mug in your honor, Tim, Susan. Here’s to 33 more.
Side note: that “prolific” comment above wasn’t just me whistling critical Dixie: released concurrently with 33 1/3 is Let’s Go Dancing Down on Gator Lake Road… Shake That Thang Till Our Heads Explode, credited to BARK but actually Tim on guitar and bass and Susan on drums. Cut live and swiftly in the studio, the 8-song mini-album overlaps somewhat with 33 1/3 by way of an alternate version of “Our Lady of the Highway,” although the general stylistic thrust is purposely rawer and bluesier, as evidenced by the swampy “Wired For Fun” and the modified distorto-boogie of “Half-Assed Blues.” It’s easy to see White Stripes or Black Keys acolytes digging the duo, but the project’s essentially the Tim Lee 2, particularly in the vocals department. As such, it’s also yet another fruitful addition to that ever-expanding Lee discography. Though a side project, fans will not be disappointed in the results.
DOWNLOAD: “Shut Up and Kiss Me,” “Our Lady of the Highway,” “Photo Booth”