Graded on a Curve:
Tim Lee 3, Devil’s Rope

The Tim Lee 3 might lack a high profile, but rest assured that their namesake has some impressive accomplishments under his belt. But Devil’s Rope, the latest record from his current trio, takes a back seat to nothing in his rather vast discography. It’s a low-key album from a very talented band that deserves to be heard by a whole lot of ears.

Upon introduction to the Tim Lee 3’s new LP, the first thing that impresses is the music’s assurance. Nothing about the record feels rushed or underdeveloped, and if the group’s Southern-shaded pop-rock isn’t breaking down any barriers, its familiarity is strengthened by a consistency of personality and the acumen of a true veteran.

And this makes sense, since singer-guitarist Tim Lee’s been at it for over 30 years now, though his work has never really earned the level of recognition it truly deserved. His presence was first noted via The Windbreakers, a band he formed with fellow Mississippi resident Bobby Sutliff, the group releasing a fine 4-song 7-inch on their own label Big Monkey Records in 1982. Suffice it to say that any DBs fan that stumbles onto Meet The Windbreakers will be heavily chuffed by the discovery.

Noted producer and ex-member of The Sneakers and Let’s Active, Mitch Easter turned the knobs for their follow up 6-song 12-inch, ‘83’s Any Monkey with a Typewriter. Along with the band’s very approachable pop-rock foundation, the association with Easter and their residence below the Mason-Dixon Line got them lumped in with R.E.M., though The Windbreakers’ power pop roots, a more legitimate extension of Big Star methinks, lent them a real air of distinction if not big sales.

From ’85 to ‘90 The Windbreakers released six full-length records, the first on Homestead, the second on French label Closer and the next four on DB Recs. My positive memory of Terminal, the opening LP in this string, was confirmed by scoping out an internet stream of Time Machine (1982-2002), a 20-song retrospective issued around a decade ago on the precisely-named imprint The Paisley Pop Label.

But during the same period Lee was also busy with other projects. He figured in Beat Temptation, an outfit that issued a pretty hep ’85 LP on Homestead titled Concerned About Rock Music? The next year came a pair of nifty collaborations, one with Matt Piucci of Paisley Underground group Rain Parade that was named Gone Fishin’, the pair issuing the album Can’t Get Lost When You’re Goin’ Nowhere on Restless.

The other was in cahoots with former member of The Nurses and abettor of Half Japanese (not to mention one hell of a rock scribe) Howard Wuelfing Jr., the duo christened Howard and Tim’s Paid Vacation. Their LP I Never Met a Girl I Didn’t Like was waxed up for the Midnight label.

Amongst all this activity (and more) Lee also found time for a solo album What Time Will Tell, issued by Coyote in ’88. And if the proper level of notoriety escaped him for his efforts (though it should be noted that The Windbreakers did develop a strong following) he just kept on trucking, releasing six more solo slabs between 1992 and 2006 and commencing the Tim Lee 3 in 2008. Devil’s Rope is their third full-length. Bluntly, it’s great to find Lee still on the scene.

The Tim Lee 3 are based not in Mississippi but in the city of Knoxville TN, and are completed by Tim’s wife Susan Bauer Lee on bass and vocals and Chris Bratta on drums. Their sound can be generally assessed as rootsy in nature, but it should be qualified that they lack any sort of overwrought attentiveness to geographical atmosphere.

Instead, they fall into an admirably subtle tradition of roots-cognizant rock units that includes such worthy names as Eleventh Dream Day, Freakwater, and X. And if the Tim Lee 3 possess a sound that’s “classic” in orientation, as Devil’s Rope unfolds they wield judicious levels of influence, never becoming too reminiscent of any particular predecessor’s style. This is specifically impressive in Tim and Susan’s shared vocal duties on the album.

If a similarity to Exene and John Doe is detectable, what’s just as notable is how they diverge from that template. For right out of the gate, Susan’s vocal on “Signal” communicates a tough weariness that’s comparable to Freakwater’s Catherine Irwin. But it also holds a substantial pop immediacy that when combined with the song’s robust melodicism radiates the welcome fumes of a femme-fronted ‘80s Jersey outfit that booked their studio time at Water Music Recording.

Tim steps to the microphone on the title-cut, a stomping Neil Young/Paisley Underground-inspired number that’s loaded with dynamic guitar playing and an impressive bass throb from Susan. The next tune, the moodily down-tempo “Jet Boys,” retains some of that Young influence, but it’s their shared vocals on the chorus that really assists the number in standing out.

The pace is quickened on “You’re Not There,” Susan again taking the lead and singing with an unflashy confidence that’s suggestive of the early work of Lucinda Williams. It’s with these uptempo numbers, the group falling into a sturdy pop-rocking groove (Bratta’s drumming is especially strong on this track), that Devil’s Rope attains an engaging variety. While the music here is obviously crafted with album listening in mind, it feels just as strongly conceived for the club stage.

“Alibi” brings some acoustic strum to the proceedings, initially not that far from something Barbara Manning might’ve cut around twenty years ago, at least until the full band kicks in. Accents of drumbox and keyboard add depth, but it’s really Susan’s vocal that carries this very pretty tune.

And “Monkey Dance” might flirt with dangerous lyrical territory, being a song about being in a rock band and all (it seems directly related to the past struggles of The Windbreakers), but it rocks out well enough, with a roaring guitar break and even some unexpected toy piano, so any topical missteps are largely avoided.

“Cut-Rate Divorce” is one of the record’s real high-points. If the tandem singing finds them at their most X-like, then Tim’s guitar is something quite different in its scrappiness. Specifically it’s much noisier, and in consort Bratta gives his kit a righteous thumping, with Susan’s bass-line, especially at the beginning, conjuring up sweet thoughts of “That’s What You Always Say” by The Dream Syndicate. And that is a very good point of reference for Devil’s Rope, for fans of The Days of Wine and Roses should find much to enjoy in this LP.

While we’re on the subject, there’s an appealing similarity between this album and a lot of the ‘80s Paisley Underground stuff that was once so frequent in record store racks via labels like Frontier and Enigma. “Halo Days (4’Drew)” is very much of that vibe, though the song is also distinctive enough in its pop-rocking sensibility to not bring any specific band to mind. And along with holding some of the LP’s best guitar wrangling, the fast-paced charger “Judging You” throws some killer mouth harp into the equation.

Smartly, some of Devil’s Rope’s best cuts come late in the order. There’s “Open the Door,” which again recalls a more pop-savvy early Dream Syndicate if Kendra Smith had sang more than one of that group’s songs, and “Weird Weather” infuses its earthy bar-band atmosphere with better writing and crisper, more dynamic musicianship than the style normally receives. “Says Baby Strange” could be Freakwater doing double-duty as a noisy rock act haunted by the spirit of Crazy Horse, and closer “Any Day Now” resists direct comparisons, being best assessed as a fully-realized hunk of smart Southern guitar-rock.

In these days when so much indie product is the result of a highly studied professionalism, Devil’s Rope can seem like a “minor” record from a local band. But that’s way off-target. Tim Lee’s days with The Windbreakers might be long over, but his current group still captures the vital spirit of the era that spawned his first endeavor. Some of the most important acts of the ‘80s sprang from the underground, and in those days if you were way outside the rock mainstream, you were almost certainly a local phenomenon sitting on the cusp of breaking out.

There isn’t a song on Devil’s Rope that’s less than very good, with a handful actually achieving excellence. Modestly scaled records like this one can slip through the cracks far too easily, and that’s a real drag. So don’t screw the pooch here. If you’re searching for no-nonsense rock music that’s played for the sheer joy of it, then please step right up to the Tim Lee 3.

GRADED ON A CURVE:
A-

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