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A.C. Newman - Shut Down the Streets

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Artist: A.C. Newman

Album: Shut Down the Streets

Label: Matador

Review date: Oct. 16, 2012

A.C. Newman’s third solo album filters spiky pop through a Vaseline-smeared lens, strummy guitar lines bristling against glossy synths and made-for-TV saxophone solos. Following Dan Bejar into the gleaming corridors of 1970s radio pop (Newman claims Gerry Rafferty’s “Baker Street” as an influence), he undercuts his strengths, the swagger, the oblique sardonic cuts, the giant pop crescendos that mark his best work.

Newman says Shut Down the Streets is about “about birth, death, happiness and sadness, chronicling a time in my life where all those things had to learn to coexist side by side,” and indeed the emotional timbre shifts weightlessly from melancholy to giddy euphoria. There are sad lines buoyed by massive, triumphant melodies, humorous asides couched in melancholy baroque string arrangements. Yet, with a few exceptions (“Encyclopedia of Classic Takedowns,” “Hostages”), Newman works large themes with constricted, needlepoint-ish precision. He is, perhaps, himself the “author of small works” cited in “I’m Not Talking.” He seems unable to let the songs fly.

The 1970s influence is most palpable on “I’m Not Talking,” a mesh of glittering, shimmering synthetic sounds (and glockenspiel), threaded through with a wind solo (clarinet? sax?) that’s uncomfortably Kenny G-ish. The song has its lush, pretty moments, but it tips from smooth to slick, much as Bejar’s Kaputt did last year.

A fair bit of Americana creeps into Shut Down the Streets. It comes partly from Neko Case’s backing vocals and partly from the pedal steel of her go-to guitarist Paul Rigby, especially in “You Could Get Lost.” But mostly it’s Michael Merenda of The Mammals who slants the songs right-ward, his banjo slicing through the massive synth builds of “Strings” and reverberating brightly in the tangled end of “Money In New Wave.” The banjo is really prominent in “Troubadors,” a staccato counterpoint to fluid clarinet runs and rough-edged acoustic guitar strums. The sound is not exactly integrated; it prods and pokes at the pop contours of the song. It’s an interesting texture in music that is, mostly, not county at all.

The album’s best song, though, is the one that sounds most like A.C. Newman, the jaunty, four-on-floor “Encyclopedia of Classic Takedowns.” Here, aided by Case, he floats airy, melodically bewitching la’s and whoa’s over an intricate cross-hatch of musical instruments. He launches a knotty, multi-syllabic line (“I didn’t mean to lift that many lines from the encyclopedia of classic takedowns”) into weightless flight, the word “lines” encircled by intoxicating harmonic fumes. “Hostages” is another good one, riding a sharp, snapping rhythm (similar to Get Guilty’s “Like a Hitman, Like a Dancer”) over meticulously constructed melody. It’s the kind of song that winds up like a music box, but somehow erupts into excess and transport.

And that, I think, is what is missing from much of Shut Down the Streets: the sudden spew of fire that can, but doesn’t always, emerge from craft. Newman’s third album is beautifully put together, well played, slyly and cleverly worded, but it works too much on the surface. I hear bright songs, polished songs, pretty songs…but where are the songs that matter?

By Jennifer Kelly

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