Is this the new sound of Charlottesville? This summer Sparky’s Fl—er, Parachute—hit it big with a mix of modern-pop and blued-eyed almost-soul, and now we’ve got Tim Be Told, another batch of recent University of Virginia grads, serving up a similar mix of smooth keys, guitars and Mayer-esque, teenage-heart-melting vocals on From the Inside.
The namesake: Tim Ouyang (center) leads his bandmates through a few praise choruses in Tim Be Told’s new EP, From the Inside.
As I shuffle through my various thoughts on Tim Be Told’s sound, I’ll throw out the wildest one first: The chords and keys that carry “Wealth & Poverty” and “Perfect” remind me of Tom Waits circa Closing Time. The piano and organ usher in a sober, autumnal atmosphere, a mood fitting for these increasingly cooler days, and one that Waits has long channeled. “Wealth & Poverty” moves on to acoustic flourishes, R&B vocals and thoughtful lyrics about the wide gaps between rich and poor. “Perfect” is a more personal meditation on high expectations, love and doubt. It builds to a dense climax, with gospel backing vocals gradually rising out of the mix to accompany Tim Ouyang’s soaring voice. The band doesn’t follow Waits beyond that initial starting point, but I certainly didn’t expect them to.
“Analyze,” the EP’s opener, could fit perfectly on Parachute’s Losing Sleep. The piano bounces, the guitars cruise and the vocals are smooth and “soulful” in that Maroon 5/Fray kind of way. String parts and deeper, more pensive subject matter set Tim Be Told apart from its C’ville pop brethren, but only by a little bit. “System” doesn’t reach much further. Spotless vocals, wah-wah guitar and keys melt into a concoction that’s sugary sweet but so by-the-book pop that it might make you sick to your stomach. “Third Wheel” has the hop of a Ben Folds number but lacks the wit or perspective that Folds tends to unleash.
Tim Be Told shines the brightest when they seize on the faith that underpins their music. Like the church organ that fleshes out “Wealth & Poverty,” “Perfect” and “Third Wheel,” the band’s spiritual leanings, though never directly annunciated, help them reach outside of the typical pop landscape. Escaping that crystalline, hook-focused territory, the band finds traction. Theme-wise, Tim Be Told turns its gaze to subjects like socioeconomic strife and the struggle for personal identity. Music-wise, the group’s optimum pace is a swaying gospel cadence, and Ouyang’s voice is best when it rises above the choir on “Perfect.”
The closing track, the 49 second “Honor You,” zeroes in on Tim Be Told’s spiritual sweet spot. The piece is essentially a closing prayer, with Ouyang singing, “I offer you all that I own/ Though small and simple/ I pray it honors you alone.” They’re humble words, but a bold final statement. It’s a conclusion you won’t find on a Parachute album, and with it Tim Be Told shows that, though their pop stylings are close to that of their fellow C’ville soulsters, they’ve got their own unique set of beliefs guiding them.