Mark Newman – Brussels


I think I know what sort of album Mark Newman wants to record. His new EP, Brussels, is a near-perfect expression of his aims. This acoustic “one-off” released to document particularly impressive live performances from a Belgian venue has no clear intentions of being a major work, but it has an unmistakably tidy vision. This is music intended to have a depth penetrating past the world’s chatter, but never plumbing too far and disappearing up one’s own backside. It has jagged corners and coarse surfaces, but not so sharp or abrasive that you turn away. This is blues for the middle, offering up a few token thrills, maybe one surprise, but never staying too far from its baselines.

“Mean Season” illustrates this perfectly. The biggest redeeming feature of this track is Newman’s always dazzling slide guitar work that rarely contents itself with the basics. Instead, he attacks the strings with a sense of the possible and draws out an assortment of interesting sounds from the instrument. “Goin’ Underground” makes a similar impression, but the contrast between the song’s energetic verses and its boilerplate chorus undermines the track. Newman hasn’t spent much of his professional career holding down a front man spot, but his authoritative vocals belie the fact. He brings equal parts grit and strength to the singing here and it helps elevate the song when the craft, perhaps, disappoints the listener.

Newman surprises with a cover of The Bee Gees’ early hit, “New York Mining Disaster, 1941”. He turns the original’s jangling electric folk into a stylish acoustic blues and it gives the track a distinctly mournful air. Newman delivers the album’s best vocal here – he completely inhabits this portrait in miniature and conveys weariness well. “So, So Cynical” is another memorable slide guitar workout, but the songwriting is more competent than inspired. Newman, in particular, struggles with providing memorable choruses and the deficiency harms this song. Tracks like this, ultimately, play like riffs on a blues theme rather than fully realized works and require muscular backing to give them shape. Between Newman’s scintillating slide work and vocal melody, there’s a discernible groove, but no band to pull it off. Newman’s emotive vocals carry the day on the EP’s closer, “Must Be a Pony”, but his largely traditional guitar accompaniment isn’t enough to give this the impact an ending deserves.

Brussels, overall, is a satisfying reminder that many top-notch musicians still ply their trade with blues music and will dependably entertain its target audience. It is a shame, however, that these aren’t songs that will stick around long. Slack songwriting and cliche occasionally undermine the performances, but never entirely wreck the project.

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3.5/5 Stars

Lydia Hillenburg