The Upshot: Tight-but-loose set that covers a wide swathe of stylistic ground, from swamp rock to power pop to soul balladry.
BY FRED MILLS
Say it ain’t so, gang! But it’s right there in black and white on the Tim Lee 3 website: Tin, Man is the Knoxville group’s swansong, following a ten year run and six superb albums. The group is officially going on hiatus, although the posting makes it clear that Lee, bassist wife Susan, and drummer Chris Bratta are all on good terms, and it’s only “external forces” that led to the decision for the Lees to concentrate, for the time being, on their duo project, Bark, and Bratta on his own various projects, (which include the Knox County Jug Stompers). Writes Lee:
“We’re not ‘breaking up’ the band. We’re not putting the band out to pasture. We’re good Southerners so we’re just putting it up on cinder blocks in the front yard until it’s time to put on some new tires and take it for another spin.”
Still, if going out on a positive note is the intention, Tin, Man seals the deal, in spades. It’s a bit looser in feel than last year’s 33 1/3 (of which yours truly noted had a pure “sonic and emotional wallop”), though no less tuneful and diverse. This may be due, in part, to the fact that a good chunk of the material here was tracked live, and also because they brought in quite a few guests on selected tracks, notably keyboard player Beth McKee, who adds crucial textures on several cuts. She’s particularly well-utilized on “See the Light,” a luminous ballad sung by Susan that, with McKee’s Wurlitzer electric piano, has an undeniable Southern soul vibe, and on its funkier counterpart, “No Rest,” McKee bringing her best Spooner Oldham Hammond B3 stylings to suggest a Muscle Shoals satellite studio established in Knoxville.
Elsewhere, the hits just keep comin’, from the 12-string-and-steel, Byrdsian Americana of “Lodger,” to bluesy, tremolo-drenched swamp rocker “Bad Attitude” (a cover originally penned by Suzy Elkins and RS Field), to the chugging powerpop of “Expensive Proposition.”
The latter, incidentally, is the TL3 minus any additional players, a perfect distillation of the trio’s core sound, with Tim and Susan swapping vocals so easily and intuitively that you can readily picture them onstage together, nodding, smiling, and exchanging glances as they sing. It’s also the album’s closer, and a fitting one, at that. Did someone mention going out on a high note?
Having followed Lee’s career going all the way back to his ‘80s band the Windbreakers, I’m confident he’ll keep making great music for many years to come. In 2015 he told BLURT, in an interview, “We generally just write the songs, and then give them the leeway to become what they need to become. We don’t really plan things out, we try to trust our instincts and follow whatever muse comes along.” So I’m good with trusting him and the musicians’ instincts. Catch ya on the flipside, folks.
DOWNLOAD: “Expensive Proposition,” “Superstition,” “Bad Attitude,” “Lodger”