Friday, August 17, 2007

Newmen CD review

A bright summer afternoon, not too long ago, found my daughter and I driving to Titusville PA in search of a place where we could buy the CD of a band we had recently seen at Brother Bean Newmen made up of Jesse Proper (lead melody guitar and lead vocals), Kevin Proper (rythm guitar), Chris Prenatt (bass), and recently the added percussionist Bob Sallaway.

I’m not exactly a stranger to Titusville – I worked morning drive at radio station WTIV when it was a (gulp) contemporary country station and have done readings and spoken word performances at Pitt-Titusville since, but, as far as we cold tell, there were only two places where we could pick up a copy of the CD – at a tattoo parlor or at Brown Stone Studio (although I should mention that Newmen had kindly invited me to drop by a rehearsal and pick up the CDs there, but schedules did not work out). I had no idea where to find either store, and strangely enough neither did anyone else we stopped to ask in Titusville. I quickly became convinced that the citizens were jerking us around.

But Titusville has a compact downtown, so I figured we could just get out and walk around and eventually ran into it. Which we did – walk and find Brown Stone Gallery (104 Diamond St, Titusville, PA 16354 should you try to find it yourself). If that seems like a tremendous amount of work to buy three CD-Rs with hand lettered and misspelled covers, it was. And if you asked if it was worth it, we’d both say yes. Absolutely.

In the story of the Small Town Artist, there has traditionally been one theme – You Must Leave. For centuries, small town artists have packed up, left the provinces, and headed to the big city to find fame and fortune (or more often, a waitress job, chemical dependency, then as 35 approaches, a move to the suburbs and 40 or so years to nurse resentment). Those who stay behind can, in this mythology, be glimpsed in bars muttering things like , “These small town minds just don’t understand me.” or worse, stereotypically mincing about in barely repressed sexual angst, like Lowell’s “fairy decorator” in the poem “Skunk Hour”.

Brilliantly, though, Newmen ignore the old story and do the sort of thing that seems obvious to all after the fact, but revolutionary for the first one who does it. Newmen don’t write song, they create mythos.They mythologize their small town of Titusville PA, (aka, according to their website “the Shire”) They embrace and celebrate the small town in music so beautiful that it causes one to reassess long demonized regionalism.

“Makeshift Platform”, whose muscular opening riff recalls Bowie in the 70s (the 1970s, not his actually age, which, surely has to be closing in on 70), quickly drills in some synths and then Jesse Proper’s voice which manages to sound vulnerable, but never delicate. It’s a song about relationships, as are a lot of the pieces on The Infeild Hits – platonic, and romantic, the relationship between artist and place, the relationship between nostalgia and time. In fact, “Chemical Rush”, the third track, is a pitch-perfect pop love song with its yearning refrain, “When my skin touches yours”. And, that’s the album in a nutshell, simple catchy, unadorned music with a simple rhythm framing Jesse’s declaration of love as more than just a synaptic reaction or an evolutionary inevitability.

Track 6 ‘Perry St Station” is a love song as well, but this one to Newmen’s hometown (as is the very fine track complete with Gordon Lightfoot-esqe yodels “Velcro Soul” containing a line that sums up not only the album overall, but the current attempt at artistic revitalization centered in nearby Oil City “Gotta Get up, let’s go the day is new/ let’s not be the reason nothing new ever happened in this town”), encompasses a decidedly non-cynical (but absolutely cyclical) trip on an excursion train that serves the Oil Region and paints a tone poem of the sightseeing railroad – the Oil City and Titusville -- that manages in just under 4 minutes to encapsulate the experience, both explicitly – the smells of the train itself and the sights of the passengers “aimless old tourists/ no one we know/ frazzled young couples with children in tow" and emotionally. There’s a Simon and Garfunkel quality to the Newmen’s songwriting and they also share a sense of delicious melancholy – the real sense of the sublime that there is beauty in the world and that beauty is made all the more sharp by the fact that it must pass into dust. “Starting point set out same point destination/the afternoon round trip from Perry Street Station we go.” It’s a pop sensibility that refuses to given to it’s worst impulses, it’s never twee or saccharin, although the tone is overwhelmingly…well. happy…and hopeful.

But, let’s face it, not everyone is going to take a day off work to obsessively track down a band’s CDs. There’s no real reason for these to be so incredibly difficult to purchase. And, yes, the CDs are, aesthetically, a disaster complete with the aforementioned misspellings in the title. It’s not that I think that everything has to be glossy – it doesn’t and you could make a pretty convincing argument that it’s actually a pretty savvy marketing move to reinforce the idea that these are bedroom masterpieces, slipping out of the minds of small town geniuses who are crafting some of the best pop music I’ve heard in years. Still, with music this good, there’s the very real chance that casual listeners won’t listen to it because it looks sloppy or simply because they can’t find it.

With so much going on in the music world – giant orchestras touring with “indie” bands, stadium rock shows for free and endless overdubbed remixes - it’s easy to forget just how incredibly good well put together pop songs can be. And these are just that.

Newmen play Brother Bean September 29, 2007 at 7 pm. No cover.


Anonymous said...

wonderful review! can't wait to hear the album myself. i'll sell their albums in brotherbean if they want me to.

Anonymous said...

WOW!!! I'm going to find this CD when I visit Pleasantville in a couple of weeks. You need a marketing manager....this is excellent.

bob said...

i like this review.