Mark Newman – Brussels

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Mark Newman, a longtime presence on stages with Sam the Sham and Willy Deville, has traveled some distance with his solo career. His latest release, a live EP entitled Brussels, should serve a twofold purpose. It can provide a strong introduction for newcomers to his artistry or serve as a brief reaffirmation for his admirers. Either way, this is a strong recording with strong songs and his voice and playing anchor it all with a signature touch often absent from modern music.

He begins things with “Mean Season”, a mid-tempo blues that makes use of well-worn imagery but never follows a purist line musically. His vocals are a curious part of his presentation in one important way. When you first hear Newman’s singing, the initial reaction may be an eye roll. His impassioned baritone isn’t exactly a startling new development in the genre and seems to lack emotion. However, with each new line, Newman’s strengths reveal themselves. He has clarity and conviction in equal measure – there are no half-sung lines or loose focus on his job as vocalist. “Goin’ Underground” benefits from the same take. His unrelenting singing does a great deal to take an otherwise pedestrian song and make it an authoritative statement.

“New York Mining Disaster, 1941” shows Newman exercising his imagination by re-imagining this early bit of pop-tinged Bee Gees folk as a full-throated lament for the death of innocents. It’s notable how Newman manages this without once dragging the track into the sort of overwrought pop stylings that the original embraced. “Dead Man’s Shoes” has lyrical complexity and sharp rhymes setting it apart from the album’s other songs, but the real highlight here is the guitar playing. Once again, the instruments help with the heavy work of leaving a memorable impression through their unpredictability and control. It’s nice that Newman can still realize each song’s potential despite not having a band behind him.

“So, So Cynical” will likely be a great crowd pleaser. It’s a relationship song with a humorously bitter edge, but it’s difficult to escape the feeling that the sarcasm is a mask to hide Newman’s deeper sorrow. It’s a shrewd, if minor, bit of songwriting with relative modest aims, but never kid yourself that writing a song with the hopes as many people relate to it as possible isn’t ambitious. Newman pulls it off well. The release testifies to the enduring power of American music and gives hope to those who fear such music is on an eternal fadeout.


8/10 Stars

Michael Saulman