A BLUE STATE JUKEBOX REVIEW
by Tony Peyser
New Heathens' Heathens Like Me
Apart from some obligatory political content, the other thing that most albums I've reviewed here have in common is they're mostly by singer-songwriters. This is primarily because their songs are generally more lyric-driven than ones by bands. Well, I'm breaking with tradition here with the debut release by some New York fellows called New Heathens. Yeah, there are some tracks with a social conscience. But the bottom line is this puppy really rocks.
When the drums kick in six seconds into the opening song, you can't help but be reminded of Rod Stewart's "Maggie Mae." But this classic rock rave-up has more than romantic nostalgia on its mind. It's a tale of young love gone way wrong and subsequent pleas for the girl involved to get on the right track. As driving guitar licks lead the way, it's like watching two cars speeding at each other and suddenly realizing that neither driver has the sense to swerve: "She wore her sister's short skirt with her hair curled and cleanest kicks/He had tattoos, a gold tooth, a short fuse and a crucifix." Lead singer and band songwriter Nate Schweber has a way with staccato lyrics that fly like knives in a carnival sideshow. If you know someone in a really bad relationship --- and we all do, don't we? --- sit ‘em down and make ‘em listen to "Getaway Baby." It might just musically bitch slap some sense into them.
Schweber and his Heathen band mates are channeling that restless sound that Bruce Springsteen and Southside Johnny plied in the 1970s at the Stone Pony down the Jersey shore. It's a salute to uninhibited city living: "It's hot as hell on a Harlem rooftop/Looking down I see a street covering my block/Young men are doing chin ups on a fire escape/While little girls are dancing to a serenade ..." You can listen to "141" and practically feel the spray from a fire hydrant. There's a band that critics --- and writers like Nick Hornby and Stephen King --- have hyped for several years called Marah. They've never really taken off with their pumped up, East Coast bar band sound but I think New Heathens should be getting some of their rave reviews. The extra punch in "141" is when Schweber --- who's now decamped to the quieter suburbs --- pines for those younger days when he knew what his nearby neighbors were listening to on their stereos and cooking in their backyard barbeques.
On "Back To Jesus," the Heathens crank it up in a Southern Rock mode that Allman Brothers fans will sidle up to in a heartbeat. The narrator sings about wanting to turn over a new leaf but his manner of expressing his contrition suggests he's not quite ready to surrender his wild ways: "I believed in mushrooms and I believed in cartoons ..." The song is so boisterous that you can imagine Jesus telling them to come back after they've settled down a little more. And you've got to love a song with these kinds of loopy lines: "And if you take me back, Lord, I won't stray again/I'll find those regicidal and hit ‘em with the bible."
In a rollicking country-rock and John Fogerty style is "July 1, Near Helena, MT." It shows they can shift genres without stripping any gears. It's hard to explain it without giving away too much and spoiling the fun. But let's just say that one person's jaw-dropping close encounter might just be somebody's knuckleheaded juvenile stunt.
The real barnburner here is the sixth song. No age is given but I'm guessing the girl it's about is somewhere in her teens. She's clearly been paying attention to the news and has just had it. The lyrics vividly illuminate her exasperated state of mind. The chorus cracks like a home run off the bat of Albert Pujols: "She wanted some peace so she hit the streets/Casting her vote with her lungs and her feet/She wondered how many lives would the world have to lose/She's was waving a white flag, seeing red and feeling blue." Schweber's progressive sensibility is revealed in mourning the loss of people of the world, not just Americans. "Red, White & Blues" is a loud, raucous track that wants to kick ass and take action.
A while back, I wrote about James McMurtry's devastating single, "We Can't Make It Here Anymore." (It recently won a fistful of awards at the Americana Music Awards down in Nashville .) That song about a town that has all but officially vanished can now be mentioned along with New Heathens "Goodnight Paterson." I love songs like this that have a sense of history and mourning the passing of eras. This one is about a New Jersey city that has seen much better times: "The factories here are fossils of a heyday gone/And the wages just keep dying down/And just because the Colt factory caught fire years back/ Don't mean that there's no guns to be found." Schweber could have left at that but pushes his examination even further: "Over on Rosa Parks Blvd. a boy was shot dead/The cops said he ran with a gang/And his baby's eating paint chips that the slumlord won't fix/White the city council votes itself a raise." That's as much an example of good reporting as good songwriting, which isn't a huge surprise since Schweber's side gig is as a journalist. The chorus mentions Lou Costello, Patterson's most famous native son, in a way that's especially good-hearted and poignant. (If you're a "Sopranos" fan, you may recall a scene between Tony and Paulie Walnuts at a statue of this famous comedian in Patterson.)
The New Heathens first disc is one of hell of a clanging calling card and definitely worth slipping into any state's jukebox, regardless of whatever color it may be. By the way, I looked up "heathen" and discovered part of its actual definition is "one who is regarded as irreligious, uncivilized or unenlightened."
Two outta three ain't bad.
A BLUE STATE JUKEBOX REVIEW
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