In Brian Dewan’s song about a cursed chain letter, a banker who disregards the letter’s warnings falls from a seventh-floor window, gets tangled in trolley wires and spits sparks. It is just one in a catalogue of macabre and comic ends met in the song. Released in 1993 on Tells the Story, Dewan’s first full-length album, “The Letter” is a solid decade ahead of its time in its behind-the-times, stylized parlor horror. Who knew then what a profound influence the illustrator Edward Gorey would become on 21st-century indie folk?
What interests me are the trolley wires. Why do they come as no surprise? Why do they not startle the listener with the sudden antiquation of the narrative? Up to that point, nothing in the lyric fixes the story in any historical time or place, and yet it feels as if the trolley wires were “already there.” Perhaps it is that the banker falls from only a seventh-floor window: a nice, safe, provincial death-fall. Bankers these days fall from much greater heights, and we don’t usually call them bankers anyway. Perhaps the sense of period derives more from the Sousalike harmonic language of the music or Dewan’s Scout-leader vocal delivery. But if so, it is subtle and unforced – just part of a coherent, pervasive turn-of-the-last-century atmosphere evoked in Dewan’s songs. You don’t even hear the hammers and engines as the old world is constructed around you; you just wake up in the place.
The press release in advance of Dewan’s upcoming performance at Backstage Studio Productions (BSP) in Kingston describes the artist as “reclusive.” See how the old language and mythotypes stick to this guy? I wonder if he tires of all the adjectives that I am about to use to describe him: eccentric, idiosyncratic, anachronistic. But Dewan has courted this identity, and not only with the placid, singsong surface and the disturbed Victorian underbelly of his musical/lyrical vision. He is known for his compositions for Blue Man Group; for the homemade electric zither that is his self-accompaniment tool of choice; for the Dewanatron line of “folk synthesizers,” some of which use rotary phone dials as controls; and for the antiqued Americana of the album covers that he has designed, including They Might Be Giants’ Lincoln and Neutral Milk Hotel’s In an Aeroplane over the Sea, two stone-cold, indisputable classics of quirky American music.
It is a singular résumé. And it is a shame that Dewan’s art, taken in its entirety, now seems so much a part of the fashionable antiquing craze of the present. Twenty years ago, trepanning sets and ye olde everything were a charming gesture of preservationist service, but also a vivid comment on the decay of small-town American myths. Today, the whole damn Indie culture seems to be a big-tent revival of circus, church and old-school print advertising. There has been a run on the odd artifacts of the past. The looting of the old red toy chest, the Scout manual and the wobbling school filmstrip has lost all subtlety. Not only was Dewan there first; he wasn’t really there at all.
While his scope is trained on the eccentric past, there has always been something more hermetic about Dewan’s odd ingenuities: a one-man-as-universe, insular self-sufficiency that has little to do with specific cultural references. Perhaps its antiquarian flavor comes from his great-grandfatherly toolset. But perhaps he confines himself to older tools (such as bell choirs) because no one person could hope to achieve such 360-degree mastery with the highly specialized tools of this era. In any case, Dewan’s quaintness seems both honest and functional, and not terribly stylized – at least by today’s standards.
Further, when ye olde novelty passes, what stands is this: He’s an excellent songwriter by any standard. One wonders why he has only released two collections of original songs, 1993’s Tells the Story and 1998’s wonderful follow-up, The Operating Theater. His songs dwell patiently on single ideas and metaphors, moving layer by layer deeper into his subjects. His melodic and lyrical lines are clean, lucid and purposeful, with very little in the way of impressionistic smudge.
When we speak of narrative songwriters, we are usually talking about writers who invoke a kind of narrativity in their songs without ever really telling complete stories. Dewan is one of those writers with the chops actually to tell whole, stand-alone stories in a song, and to do it without ever violating the quaint plainsong rules by which he plays. I am sure that he has been called unique enough times to make him barf, but Brian Dewan is unique.
Brian Dewan will perform at the Lounge at BSP in Kingston on Thursday, May 31 as part of the Revue series. Pocatello and Jake Sorgen will also perform. The suggested donation is $5. BSP lounge is located 323 Wall Street in Uptown Kingston. For more information, visit http://bsplounge.com/?p=791, http://briandewan.blogspot.com/ or http://www.dewanatron.com/index.html.