Americana as a recognized musical genre has been around for about 20 years, give or take. There’s even an Americana Music Association, which itself defines this subgenre in part as “contemporary music that incorporates elements of various American roots music styles, including country, roots-rock, folk, bluegrass, R&B and blues …”
Since it straddles a lot of different markets, in theory it should have a fairly wide appeal. In practice, however, it’s more like a grab bag of what remains if it isn’t pop, punk, metal, contemporary country, hip hop or opera. In other words, it’s a genre that focuses more on substance than style, which describes Tim Lee 3 pretty accurately.
Calling Knoxville, Tennessee home for quite a few years now, guitarist/vocalist Tim Lee, bassist/vocalist Susan Bauer Lee and drummer Chris Bratta are launching their fourth studio effort called 33 1/3. The title holds some significance for the band: they recognize not only that 33 1/3 the traditional speed at which 12-inch LP records play (measured in revolutions per minute), but as well they acknowledge that the release date coincides with Tim & Susan’s 33 1/3 wedding anniversary — measured in years, of course.
What numerological magic plays out here is anyone’s guess, but there’s no guesswork involved when it comes to the music contained on the album. It certainly fits the Americana rubric, but the band is much more than just an assortment of acoustic guitars, dobros and fiddles looking for a day pass from their display case over at the museum of lost arts.
To start, back in the day Tim Lee was one of the driving forces behind the popular alt/indie/college circuit band the Windbreakers. On 33 1/3 (due March 6, 2015 via Cool Dog Sound), he taps into his signature sound that tastefully balances melodic lead guitar work with 12-string jangle and attaches it to the rock solid rhythm section. Occasional keyboards, percussion and stray pedal steel guitars fade in and out of the mix, like ghosts of forgotten session players passing through.
Vocal duties are shared between Tim and Susan, recalling echoes of old Windbreakers’ tracks, hints of roots-rock singers like Lucinda Williams, and even a passing suggestion of long lost alt rockers Divine Horsemen — which featured dual lead vocals by Chris D and Julie Christensen. In other words, this rocks more than you’d think 30-plus years of marital bliss in the shadow of the Great Smoky Mountains might sound like.
The real strength of the playing and singing though is that it doesn’t steal attention away from the songs themselves. In fact, the playing supports some top quality compositions. The album opens with the one-two punch of the odd and edgy “Baby Caught Fire” and the effortless Byrdsian power pop of “Photo Booth,” then segues into the standout “Our Lady of the Highway,” a brooding, in transit meditation.
Lyrically, “Shut Up and Kiss Me” allows the band’s sense of humor to come to the fore during the bridge: “You don’t know how to behave, but still I dig you like a grave.” And “Looking for the Door” takes the spirit of any dozen Springsteen car tunes, some sentimentality from Lou Reed’s classic “Rock ‘n’ Roll,” and some fatalistic realism from John Mellencamp and mixes them into an image of what must be one of the true rites of passage found in the American Heartland: “Traffic lights, well they blinked all night, had the radio on and it was all right.”
In all, 33 1/3 is a strong release from Tim Lee 3. It should appeal to fans of indie roots-rock, numerologists and happily married couples. Oh — and any anyone who still likes good music of any sort.
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