It took about fifteen years and a few hard knocks to get Richard Newman back to writing and performing original music.
Newman played in local acts Junkbox and the Neverminds a few musical generations ago, but since then other endeavors -- such as writing poetry and editing the literary magazine River Styx -- took over his interests. But a self-described midlife crisis and his second divorce managed to reawaken his inner songwriter, and with his group the CharFlies, Newman has paired his evocative and thoughtfully rendered songs with hand-hewn, soulful folk music.
The band playfully calls its music "junk-folk," and while there are some loose moments and purposefully rudimentary percussion, the instrumentalists craft more than passable strains of bluegrass and folk. Newman is a fair strummer and is well-versed in the patterns of Americana songcraft, but it's Nick Nihira's work on banjo and mandolin that gives color to these tracks. (He also designed the woodsy, earth-toned album art and takes the lead on the dark-tinted song "Mary.") Shanie Latham's harmony vocals are a crucial element to the band's sound, though when paired with Newman's high tenor, some of the harmonies are less than distinct. Latham's voice sounds almost trepidatious on opening track "Whip-Poor-Will Holler" (one of a few songs here that's a little too by-the-numbers with its rural, rusticated signifiers), but he shows control and range on the gently loping "Place in My Heart" and elsewhere on the disc.
Given his background in poetry, it's hardly surprising that Newman's lyrics are thoughtfully wrought -- though his words are always in service of the songs, and not vice-versa. He can write clever and layered blues songs, such as the Waits-ian "My Baby Cries When I Don't Come Home" and the genuinely funny "Five Bags of Poison," a rootin', tootin' ode to chemotherapy -- though some of those moments sound a little too much like artifice. His words are better when they sneak up on you, and Linoleum Angel is flecked with lines that ring with truth while they show the writer's scalpel-like precision.
"Song for the Dead of Winter" sounds like the title of a Gordon Lightfoot tune -- the music isn't too far off either -- but certain lyrics stand at attention: "Let me muddy the earth with blood from my veins and christen the dirt with spilled wine," Newman sings. In another context that could be some fin de siècle suicide note or a metalhead's creed, but amid cheery and strummy folk music it illuminates Newman's eye for detail and skill at turning a phrase.
Listen to the song "River Will Dream" off of the new album below:
The CharFlies Record Release 8 p.m. Friday, February 6. Off Broadway, 3509 Lemp Avenue. $8. 314-773-3363.
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