By Steve Wilson
X is the tenth album from one-man band, pop auteur Richard X. Heyman. Before we get into a varied and critical discussion of X, let me give a deserving artist and those who serve him a break. What follows may be mostly lauding, occasionally pointed in criticism, but for now – here’s your money shot:
X, the tenth album from pop auteur Richard X. Heyman, is his most diverse and realized collection yet. From a diverse set of influences he’s crafted an unmistakably original and compelling song cycle, recalling the best elements of artists from the Byrds and the Left Banke to the Beach Boys and Bruce Springsteen. Any fan of beautifully crafted songs and expert, vibrant power-pop performances will swoon to X.
Thanks … whoo.
Now for the review …
I’ve heard most of Heyman’s music and collected the lion’s share of it. Attracted to good songwriting and finely tuned pop sensibilities, I became a fan. His earlier work and much of his catalog has been pigeonholed, not altogether unfairly, as power-pop. Catchy songs like “Falling Away,” from Hey Man!, and “That Will Be the Moment” from Basic Glee lent the impression that Heyman was a veritable and vibrant one-man Teenage Fanclub – his brand of power-pop more Byrds, twelve-string driven than specifically Mersey inspired.
Increasingly, however, Heyman’s songwriter’s reach has widened to include nods to California rock from the Jackson Browne/Little Feat era, elements of everyone from Bruce Springsteen to Billy Joel, shades of Donald Fagen and Steely Dan, and nods vocally to the yearning, tenor machismo of the Jefferson Airplane’s Marty Balin. Yup, it’s true.
Were he better known these would be stylistic stretches that might endear him a fabled wider audience. As it is, with a fan base that probably wants to tie him to Big Star’s apron strings, it may cost him. His expanded pallet is not all reflective of an indie hipster’s preconceptions and dreams. For me even, there are some missteps here, given my own pop predilections, but for the most part his restlessness works on X.
If there is a constant in Heyman’s music it’s his Byrds adoration. But where his earlier work was full of early Byrds jangle, X sounds like the Byrds of the Notorious Byrd Brothers, a band with a familiar palette expanding into new sonics, new ways of playing. Again, like the Byrds circa NBB, Heyman mostly profits from this wing spreading.
Heyman is a consummate craftsman. His solo-all-the-way recordings reflect the best and worst of the DIY commitment, mostly the best. His songwriting is accomplished; he weds real melodies to sharply observed character studies and personal polemics. His playing is terrific. He began his career as a drummer in the Jersey garage-rock outfit, the Doughboys, and his self-help rhythm section really brings these songs to life. His drumming anchors the performances but he’s not afraid of the odd Keith Moon flail or fill-happy moment. His bass playing is supple and McCartney fueled. He’s a damn good guitarist and keyboard player, too; there’s not much he can’t do. To my ears he would profit from bringing in guest harmony and backing singers. There is a slightly constrained quality to his harmonic intervals, which is reinforced by the repetitive timbre of one voice. Playing different guitars through different amp rigs gives a musician the ability to sound like a somewhat different player, whereas it’s hard for most singers to not sound like they are in overdub city when they try to cover everything. That which lends the richness and variety to having multiple singers, whether it’s the Rolling Stones or Fleetwood Mac, is the tension and the blending of diverse, distinct voices. But I cavil, eh? Let’s talk about the songs, and about Heyman’s message, if you will.
X is full of laments, warnings and cautionary tales. It’s a wary batch of songs. From the title, “When Denny Dropped Out of the Scene” suggests being about nothing more than some guitar player blowing town, but whoever this Denny fellow is; he’s clearly left Heyman and his world unmoored, adrift. The words and the tune combine beautifully, lending a deep sense of regret, longing and missed opportunity, Heyman’s vocals evoking Dylan singing with the Association. And I mean that in the best damn way.
“Please Be Mindful” follows with Townshend-like piano arpeggios – an urgent ecological, generational warning, phrased with the quaint elegance of an English courtyard sign advising against allowing one’s dog to foul the churchyard. The stop-start garage-blues wail of “Compass” continues the message of alienation, with its echoes of everything from the Blues Project to the Shadows of Knight; it’s punky, bluesy, and cuts loose at just the right time at track four. A creeping sense of dread pervades the Byrds/Beau Brummels jangle of “Firing Line,” Heyman delivering an analysis of class warfare that doesn’t preach, and sacrifices no pop value – nicely done, sir.
“House of Cards” sustains the mood. Heyman’s tense ode to things falling apart combines driven rock with Steely Dan modulations, a real musical sleight of hand that works. He connects the dots between the Byrds and Blue Oyster Cult (established on “Don’t Fear the Reaper”) on “Hangman,” another driving rocker with folk-rock deftness.
Other highlights? “Somebody Has Finally Found Me” is a stormer, as close, along with “Compass,” as X gets to rocking loose, and the lyric about finding the girl of your dreams answering for an ad for a drummer is a deliciously cute musician’s conceit. “Mourning” weds Springsteen earnestness with the limpid, lovely guitar figures of Television. And “If You Have To Ask” is the songsmith’s version of a complex varietal in wine, combining notes of Left Banke, Raspberries, Motown, and Steely Dan into an improbably lovely whole.
X, while suffering from the constipations and manicured qualities of the one-man band and controlling auteur complex, is a stunning achievement in pop arranging, composition, playing, production and singing – the modern day equivalent of any of Todd Rundgren’s classic exercises in self, and a superb collection of songs that rivals its inspirations, from The Notorious Byrd Brothers, Empty Glass (Peter Townshend), and the Beach Boys Sunflower era recordings.
X is released by Turn-Up Records and is available to purchase here: http://www.richardxheyman.com