Listening to the second New West release – and fourth overall – for songwriter/guitarist/ sideman extraordinaire Aaron Lee Tasjan is an unexpected and glorious experience. Inspired by pre-teen Southern California days riding around with his mom in her navy blue Volvo station wagon, ‘Karma For Cheap’ conjures not only the acid-fueled days of 1966 and 1967, but also the summers of 1988 and 1989 – the era when Jeff Lynne’s bright, clear production ruled rock radio in the form of the Traveling Wilburys, George Harrison’s ‘Cloud Nine,’ Roy Orbison’s ‘Mystery Girl,’ and especially Tom Petty’s ‘Full Moon Fever.’
Highlights abound on ‘Karma for Cheap.’ From channeling the Electric Light Orchestra’s dense, sunny pop and George Harrison-like vocal and guitar on lead-off track, ‘If Not Now When’ to the capturing of Tom Petty’s spirit on both ‘Heart Slows Down’ (with its lyrical nod to Thunderclap Newman’s classic ‘Something in the Air’) and ‘End of the Day,’ Tasjan has perfectly captured two distinct eras in pop music – both of which highly informed by the Beatles, with nods to jangle pop, the pub-rock of Rockpile, and a touch of Cheap Trick (on tracks like ‘Set You Free’ and ‘Crawling at Your Feet’). The ghost of Roy Orbison is most obviously present in the wondrous ‘Strange Shadows,’ while ‘Strawberry Fields’-era Beatles mixed with a dollop of the Lovin’ Spoonful drive the acoustic psychedelia of ‘Dream Dreamer.’
Although not a political record by any stretch, ‘Karma for Cheap’ does show some concern for present-day discourse and the treatment of the media in ‘The Truth Is So Hard to Believe’ – where fuzz-filled guitars riff over a plodding beat with deliciously melodic backup vocals – and most notably on ‘The Rest Is Yet to Come’ where Tasjan sings, “Good hearted people do terrible things when the end justifies the means.”
By allowing the past to inform his present, ‘Karma for Cheap’ turns out to be East Nashville-transplant Aaron Lee Tasjan’s best work to date, and it leaves one eager to hear where his next inspiration will lead him.