Mark Newman – Brussels
Guitar players have an unfortunate curse. The best longtime sidemen in popular music history are invariably tempted to step out from behind the bandleader and push their own projects after so many years ably supporting others dreams. However, with some notable exceptions, few of them debut with the necessary songwriting chops that can help free them from the shadows of the former employers. They rely on their instrumental prowess to carry the day and are typically content to adopt clichéd vehicles for their playing. Newman isn’t any spotlight-devouring prima donna lead guitarist, but his work with a full band and solo playing alike clearly centers on the guitar. His latest release, the EP Brussels, is cut from the same cloth.
“Mean Season” is an excellent opener. The dual acoustic guitars and Newman’s voice find a clear groove and share similar moods. Newman’s voice alternates between strength and sensitivity, but the greatest quality is its phrasing. It helps overcome some rather lackluster lyrical material that, while it’s never embarrassing, doesn’t measure up to the inventiveness of his playing. “New York Mining Disaster, 1941” is the album’s sole cover, but it isn’t an ordinary cover. His choice to take an obscure early Bee Gees hit, charting long before their disco reinvention, and turn it into a stark, stripped down folk lament feels like Newman finishing a work the Bee Gees lacked either the imagination or commercial standing to properly perform. Eschewing the original’s concession to pop music of its time, Newman’s version is far darker and much more engaging.
He continues to engage the listener with “Dead Man’s Shoes”. This is the album’s most complete song, a musical and lyrical narrative that never loses its listener thanks to its strong imagery and evocative music. Newman is with every line and his unwavering focus on the lyric helps elevate it into a truly fine piece of work. “So, So Cynical” has a more commercial edge than the other songs on Brussels, but it doesn’t sound out of place. Instead, one cannot help but chuckle slightly at Newman’s subtle humor that his voice is able to exploit fully, but he never overdoes it. He fills each chorus with a biting sneer and the music has enough swagger to match his attitude.
Brussels isn’t an important work. It doesn’t signal any new direction for Newman or field an assortment of new songs that will alter his career trajectory. However, it does reaffirm Newman’s gifts and heralds a continued bright future.
– Alonzo Evans