It's a ways from Eddie Van Halen to Fred Eaglesmith, but Dan Tedesco's made the trek. This childhood metalhead, ex-punk, jazz-trained guitarist and (now) rootsy singer/songwriter has finally come into his own with his third album, Death in the Valley.
"My first record's all over the place, and there was still quite a bit of that on the second album," says Tedesco. "This record is a much more solid piece of art from beginning to end. The whole story is very complete: the sequencing, the focus of all the arrangements and the overall sonic unity of it. It sounds like a complete album."
Tedesco's a Midwesterner who grew up around Chicago and, like Eaglesmith, possesses an earthy plainspoken gift for narrative. Many of his characters might've escaped from a Springsteen song, such as the rain-soaked ne'er-do-well from the piano-driven "Rubber Left to Burn," who is "rolling through this spooky turn / The radio's dead and I've lost most of my tread."
The Boss might also relate to blue-collar "Closin' for the Season," keyed by a slithering lead that evokes Neil Young's "Powderfinger." Tedesco's curt rhythms echo the factory's churn: "Anymore I'm haunted by a distant whistle whine / Tales from my father's time / When a man could earn his keep, when a man could earn his sleep / Now we're just counting sheep."
"That whole cycle of change, the up and down and the way things move in a cyclical fashion — that's a huge theme throughout the whole album," he says. "A lot of it trickled down from watching things that happened to people I know the last four or five years with the recession. You need to feel like you're contributing and have some purpose or things can get real dark real fast."
Making music was Tedesco's childhood dream. After discovering Van Halen's "Eruption," and later punk, he spent a half-decade studying jazz and playing solo. But his love of rock never wavered.
"I would go to the practice room at school, turn the amp up and just play power chords for four hours. Because I couldn't take hearing any more sharp 9s and flat 11s and all the upper extensions. I just wanted to play something that made the heart shake. That's really what mattered to me."
In time, Tedesco returned to rock via roots songwriters like John Prine, Steve Goodman and Guy Clark. Suddenly, his lyricism blazed and drove headlong into Americana narratives. While his albums feature a full band, he now typically performs solo.
"The spontaneity of playing by yourself — especially given my jazz background — means you can really do whatever you want. It's a really liberating experience," he says. "It also presents a tremendous challenge to write songs that can be played either way. Because with a really good song you can do that, and with bad songs you can't."
With the emotionally taut and shadowy roots of Death in the Valley, Tedesco believes he's found the right balance.
"One of my biggest challenges has always been that I'm all over the place, and that makes it hard to get a certain group of people to really latch on," he says. "You have to find the things that connect. This is the first record where I feel that's starting to happen."