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Aaron Lee Tasjan Mixes Yearning Vocals And Strong Guitar On 'Karma For Cheap'


This is FRESH AIR. Aaron Lee Tasjan is a singer-songwriter currently residing in Nashville, but he's not a country artist. Claiming to be heavily influenced by rockers like David Bowie and the Beatles, Tasjan recently told Rolling Stone he hopes his new album, "Karma For Cheap," can help to comfort or uplift somebody. One of the people he's uplifted is our rock critic Ken Tucker. Here's Ken's review of "Karma For Cheap."


AARON LEE TASJAN: (Singing) Strange shadow is painted on her eyes. She'll lose it when she cries in the rain. Strange...

KEN TUCKER, BYLINE: With his yearning vocals and strong guitar lines, Aaron Lee Tasjan has a kind of passion in his plaintiveness, an urgency in his anguish. It's the sound of a man who's eager to fall in love and unafraid of having his heart broken because it might teach him something about the person he fell for or about his own shortcomings. Also, he knows he might get a good song out of it.


TASJAN: (Singing) It's all in your head. There's no race to be won. The world that you're in is a beautiful one. With the sun in your eyes through the golden haze, yeah, you're doing all right in so many ways. But the truth is so hard. The truth is so hard to believe. And when you see yourself as somebody else, it's more than the mind can conceive. But the truth is so hard. The truth is so hard to believe.

TUCKER: You listen to Aaron Lee Tasjan and start picking up on his influences - the very tart George Harrison guitar tone on that song, "The Truth Is So Hard To Believe," for instance. Tasjan lives in Nashville these days, but this Ohio-born musician did a stint in New York City, playing in the neo-glam band Semi Precious Weapons as well as a latter-day version of the New York Dolls. The echoey, sometimes slightly distorted vocals remind me of T. Rex and Harry Nilsson with a hint of Marshall Crenshaw. It wouldn't add up to much of course if Tasjan wasn't supplying his own original melodies and hooks.


TASJAN: (Singing) Is that the sweet angel I used to know? She traded her heart for a mansion on Music Row. A little devil on my shoulder gives me a smile. And I can't tell you if he's been there for a while. I've lived on the both sides of the river. I've been both a saint and a sinner. And I'm here to tell you there's nothing you can really say. All comes down to how you're living at the end of the day, at the end of the day.

TUCKER: "Karma For Cheap" is Tasjan's third album. And as yet, no one seems to know where to categorize him in the music industry. His previous album, "Silver Tears," earned him a nomination for an award from the Americana Music Association, and he's played in bluegrass festivals. He's toured as the opening act for the punk band Social Distortion and, quite separately, for Sheryl Crow as well. Indeed, if you listen closely, you'll hear Crow singing harmonies on the refrain of "Crawling At Your Feet."


TASJAN: (Singing) Woe is me for my heart is on fire. It burns like a tire, and there's nothing I can do. Oh, my beast - chain it to the radiator. I'll show you how it feels when there's evil on your heels. Crawling at your feet with the hustlers and thieves, come to cut you at the knees - there's something in the sheets, and it's crawling at your feet. Every night...

TUCKER: I went on a long vacation car ride recently and took along a bunch of new CDs. Yes, I still listen to CDs as one way to get my music. When an album holds up to hours of repeated plays, I know it's a keeper. And "Karma For Cheap" only grew on me more as the hours went by. This is where the kind of music that Aaron Lee Tasjan makes proves its worth. Now, if only his kind of pop music was more popular.

GROSS: Ken Tucker is critic at large for Yahoo TV. He reviewed Aaron Lee Tasjan's new album, "Karma For Cheap." Tomorrow on FRESH AIR, my guest will be Maggie Gyllenhaal. We'll talk about her starring role in the HBO series "The Deuce" in which she plays a sex worker in the 1970s who becomes an actress in and then a director of porn films. Gyllenhaal has applied her feminist point of view to how she portrays the character. She insisted on being a producer of the series so she'd have a say in how the character was portrayed and how the sex scenes were handled. I hope you'll join us.

FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our senior producer is Roberta Shorrock. Our technical director and engineer is Audrey Bentham. Our associate producer for digital media is Molly Seavy-Nesper. Thea Chaloner directed today's show. I'm Terry Gross.

We'll close with a track from Jon Batiste's forthcoming album, "Hollywood Africans." Batiste is the leader of Stay Human, the house band for "The Late Show With Stephen Colbert." He's a pretty extraordinary pianist, and he'll be at the piano for our interview next week on Thursday.

(SOUNDBITE OF JON BATISTE'S "KENNER BOOGIE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Ken Tucker reviews rock, country, hip-hop and pop music for Fresh Air. He is a cultural critic who has been the editor-at-large at Entertainment Weekly, and a film critic for New York Magazine. His work has won two National Magazine Awards and two ASCAP-Deems Taylor Awards. He has written book reviews for The New York Times Book Review and other publications.