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The Graham Weekly Album Review #1206

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Lee Feldman: The Man in a Jupiter Hat
by George Graham

(Bonafide Records 1002 As broadcast on WVIA-FM 7/19/2000)

Say the phrase "singer-songwriter" and the image of an acoustic guitar playing folkie usually comes to mind. But there are also the artists whose main instrument is the piano, and it's interesting to consider the differences in stylistic direction that their music can take from the folkies. Compare, for example, Bob Dylan to Randy Newman. While the vast majority of singer-songwriters are guitarists, in addition to Newman, some notable piano playing songwriters include Billy Joel, Elton John, and the late Laura Nyro, and each, while attracting pop audiences, does bring a different character to his or her songs than a guitar player would.

This week we have a new CD by a pianist, singer and songwriter who brings an original and indeed very pianistic perspective to his music, that sets him apart from most other singer-songwriters on the scene. He is Lee Feldman, and his new second CD is called The Man in a Jupiter Hat.

Forty-year-old Lee Feldman was born in Seattle, but moved to New York by age three. He was soon taking an interest in music, including a nursery school fascination with the Beatles. He studied classical music, first at the Manhattan School of Music's Preparatory division, and then at the Indiana University School of Music. His musical career has run from playing classical recitals to being the piano player at a strip club. Moving into being a singer-songwriter came rather later in life than for most artists, but he applied his wide-ranging musical background and experience, along with a penchant for literate lyrics with subtle wit, to create his first album Living It All Wrong in 1995, which was later picked up for national release almost two years afterward. His style in some ways resembles that of Randy Newman, with his music obviously written at a piano, and with classical and orchestral influence being heard in the harmonies and voicings of the compositions. There are also hints of the classic Tin Pan Alley and film composers. But Feldman, though no less witty lyrically, is a gentler, more subtle wordsmith than Newman's famously sardonic style. That is also reflected in Feldman's vocal style which has almost a kind of wide-eyed innocence to it. Lyrically, he also is keen to create a series of vignettes or impressionistic cameos, often with few details filled in, just enough to leave the listener intrigued. At other times, the songs can be quite funny.

While his first album was rather spare in instrumentation -- mostly just Feldman's piano and a small rhythm section -- The Man in a Jupiter Hat brings in more supporting musicians to help realize Feldman's songs with their orchestral aspirations. But it's always tastefully done. Producer Roger Peltzman did an admirable job of assembling just the right combination of accompaniment from a sprightly horn section, to a morose string ensemble to a Celtic group to a circus calliope. And on this album, there are more opportunities for instrumental sections on certain tracks, to reflect Feldman's composing style. The result is an album that has a considerable amount of charm, though it's quite low-key -- in many ways like Feldman himself.

The CD leads off with one of its more cryptic sets of lyrics, Eastern Europe, which spotlights the added instrumentation, including the horns and some rocky electric guitar played by Dave Schramm. <<>>

Among the more introspective songs is Army which considers a relationship and the effect of separation. Feldman's classical influence is apparent in the melodic and harmonic turns the piece takes. <<>> It ends with a bit of Winston Churchill. <<>>

The album's title piece, The Man in a Jupiter Hat, is one of its most charming. It's another of Feldman's intriguing musical vignettes. The waltz' arrangement, with the brass band and calliope adds much to the song. <<>>

Released as the first single from the album is one of its more humorous songs, Monkeys, built with tongue-in-cheek on the notion of the similarities between different species of primates. <<>>

Also from the field of zoology comes Reluctant Cicada, written from the perspective of a 17-year cicada who doesn't feel like coming out of the ground after all that time. An odd twist is the addition of the Celtic instruments, including Jerry O'Sullivan's Uillean pipes. <<>>

Feldman creates another intriguing set of lyrics on Underground, which uses the metaphor of getting away or hiding out, in a manner open for interpretation in a number of ways. <<>>

Airplane is another of Feldman's wonderfully witty songs. He takes the fear of flying and weaves that into a happy, upbeat melody with some very phobia-laden lyrics. <<>>

Also with a lot of charm is Williamsburg Bridge named after a structure in Feldman's home section of Brooklyn. It's Feldman the creator of musical cameos in fine form. <<>>

The CD ends with a short reprise of The Man in a Jupiter Hat played on calliope. <<>>

Lee Feldman is a very original singer-songwriter and pianist, whose music seems very much shaped by his instrument. With an often subtle wit, he creates a series of little musical vignettes that seem perfectly matched between words and music, which he delivers in a disarmingly informal vocal style that sometimes belies the multifaceted nature of his words. The additional instrumentation on this CD, compared to his last, is very tastefully handled, and never gets in the way of the songs. It's also eclectic enough to provide some additional interest to the point that some of the instrumental sections of songs take on a life of their own.

From a sonic standpoint, the CD is decent, though not exactly award-winning in my view. As is all-too-common, there was excessive audio compression applied in the mastering process to make the recording sound louder, but degrading the listening experience for those with half-decent stereos. Also, despite the fact that the Steinway piano company is mentioned in the CD liner notes, Feldman's piano sounds a bit thin in this recording. On the positive side is the quality of the mix, which allows one to hear well all the interesting added instrumentation in just the right proportions without distracting from the songs.

Feldman appeared on WVIA-FM's Homegrown Music series back in 1998 and performed three of the excellent songs which appear on The Man in a Jupiter Hat. He did them in a solo piano setting, and I've gotten to know the songs from hearing them that way. But the arrangements and production on the new CD frame those songs very effectively, making for great listening.

With so many guitar-based singer-songwriters operating these days, it's nice to hear from a piano man. Lee Feldman is definitely an original and his new CD nicely captures his great writing and understated charm.

(c) Copyright 2000 George D. Graham. All rights reseved.
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