An old number by Loudon Wainwright III pays tribute to an icon who directly inspired a generation of singer-songwriter types. In this song Wainwright says of himself (and various others): "We were new Bob Dylans / Your dumb-ass kid brothers." But for many years countless Texas artists have patterned themselves after a different guy with an acoustic guitar and a keen way with words, the late Townes Van Zandt. Now here comes Leslie Newman, another little brother who's trying hard, maybe too hard, to live up to the legacy of his home-state role model.
On first listen, Leslie Newman disappoints because it so obviously echoes Van Zandt's fundamental sound while falling short of his transcendent poetry. But, to make a confession, the songs get better the more you listen to 'em.
Newman's self-titled CD unceasingly emphasizes his stylistic kinship to Van Zandt. It's there in Newman's aw-shucks vocal delivery, an unschooled and wavering baritone drawl that occasionally sounds like a Van Zandt impersonation. It's there in the basic folk-rock musical foundation, a mix of old-style acoustic blues, ballads and shuffles accented with a heavy backbeat and electric guitar. And it permeates the lyrics, which range from the whimsical (as in the supernatural metamorphosis of "Flood of '91") to the spiritually somber (as in "Angel on My Back," a philosophical ode to a relationship).
Two dominant themes, personal introspection and common-man social satire, are interwoven among the 14 tracks, all Newman originals. Of those in the former group, "End of the Line" is particularly Van Zandtian in its ironically detached focus on mortality and the hereafter. Against a background, resonating with fingerpicked banjo and violin, the curious speaker casually inquires -- first from the perspective of a gravedigger, then from that of a hobo -- about when he might die. The central image is of a just-emptied-and-tossed whiskey bottle floating down a muddy Buffalo Bayou toward the Gulf. It evokes the abstraction in a tidily concrete way.
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The songs abound in regional and Houston-specific references. One, "Interstate 10," is a lonesome ballad that uses a westward drive on everyone's least-favorite strip of concrete as the setting for reflection about a dead love affair. Another, "Viva Lake Charles," takes us in the opposite direction on the same freeway, heading east to casinos across the Louisiana state line, high on foolish optimism. Others ("When I Take Over" and "Downsizing Blues") less directly allude to changes in the local economy while humorously venting a working stiff's indignation toward corporate CEO types.
But it's two songs titled after the names of real-life people that most obviously speak directly to denizens of Space City. "Lyle Lovett" is a twangy C&W waltz that begins: "In the old days in Houston / Down at Anderson Fair / I never did notice that tall pile of hair." It's a good-natured spoof on Lovett's post-Montrose commercial recording success and his hard-to-comprehend status as a Hollywood sex symbol. The chorus, in sing-along fashion, pleads, "Lyle Lovett, Lyle Lovett, let me climb up your hair / Think of the sites I could see way up there."
Then there's "Bud Adams," positioned intentionally, it would seem, as track number 13. It's a sarcastic ballad, demonizing the owner of the former NFL Houston Oilers, the guy who "fired Bum" and eventually uprooted the team for a more lucrative home base in Tennessee. Among other outrageous claims about the widely despised football magnate, Newman adds: "He's got a new approach / He's hired Hitler for his quarterback / And Satan for his coach."
Might be the old Oilers fan in you, who knows, but there's something here in Leslie Newman that works. Heck, you might even find yourself singing along to a few tunes. Call it Bayou City folk music for the 21st century. Not bad for a kid brother.