Jeff Austin & Chris Castino: Songs From the Tin Shed

Sometimes my friends envy my part time CD critic job. Must be nice, they opine, getting new CDs in the mail for free, and all you have to do is write a few words. Usually, I take this ribbing with some grace. I don’t point out that there’s a fairly large amount of chaff to be separated before a batch of CDs yields its harvest of wheat.

Reviewing Songs From the Tin Shed, a collaboration between The Big Wu’s Chris Castino and Jeff Austin of the Yonder Mountain String Band, promised to be a no-brainer, a work by representatives of two of today’s hottest jambands. I expected pure acoustic gold with this record. Unfortunately, the chaff prevails.

It’s always difficult for me to review poor work by artists I like and respect. For Tin Shed, the task is nearly painful. This earnest collection of originals and covers draws on rich sources, but the duo, despite workmanlike production by Nick Forster, misses the mark more often than not.

It’s not all dross. “Steep Grade, Sharp Curves,” a title inspired by Colorado highway signs (“Climb to Safety” was already taken), gives Austin a chance for some vocal vamping in front of tasteful resophonic guitar fills. And as with Yonder’s, Old Hands release, a Benny Galloway tune, “Back of My Mind,” makes an early and welcome appearance, and Galloway’s influence is further evidenced by Austin’s finely-crafted “Different Day.” Throw in a classic Louvin Brothers composition, “My Baby’s Gone”, and Tin Shed does serve as a kind of primer for classic, pre-Garth country music. The Riders in the Sky composition, “Lonely Yukon Stars,” neatly closes the record with an ear-catching harmonized yodel.

But for every peak there’s a valley, in this case the pretentious “Flatiron Suite,” Castino’s muddled romance. It’s not just the awkward lyrical construction and forced rhymes. Castino’s untutored voice remains too dull an instrument to precisely depict the deeper meaning of the lyrics. It’s easy to imagine this one breaking loose to soar over a rich improvisational landscape, but on this record, “Suite” is merely an indulgence. Austin contributes a clinker as well in the melodramatic precursor to a 12 step program, “Sunday Afternoon.” “Paul and Silas” is just an ordinary interpretation of the fine old gospel standard. “Last Day Waltz” comes in a poor second in the heartbreak derby after the Louvin Brothers tune, and “Latent Love” is just plain lame.

Back in the day, Jerry Garcia used to describe the Grateful Dead’s habit of writing songs onstage, polishing the rough edges in front of an audience, and then going into the studio to lay down the tracks. Following this model, Austin and Castino might have considered the tour before the studio. I can’t help but think that with a bit of road testing, Songs From the Tin Shed would have been more successful. Perhaps in their next collaboration, Austin and Castino will take more time and care. I’ll be waiting to hear it.

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