Tom E. Lewis - Beneath The Sun
TOM E. LEWIS - 'BENEATH THE SUN' - Skinnyfish Music
Released February 15, 2014
If you hear the name spoken, you would hear it as Tommy Lewis. But that can't be right.
Wasn't Tommy Lewis the young man spotted at an airport in 1978 and chosen to play the titular lead in the classic Fred Schepisi movie, “THE CHANT OF JIMMIE BLACKSMITH”?
It cannot be the same bloke can it? What has he done since then?
Stage, film and more stage.
More recently, he played the protagonist in the superb Aussie film, “RED HILL”. Once again, he brings a certain intensity to the character whom the story is built around. But we have to wait until well into the movie before he delivers his own brand of karmic justice. It is a great performance.
With a face that has seen, to borrow Alejandro Escovedos' phrase, 'more miles than dollars', Tom brings an effortless authenticity to whatever he does.
So, is this the same man? Was he cultivating a musical career in tandem with the acting work?
Well, yes - very much so. Tom has sustained an international profile touring Europe and Asia, in the duo, 'Lewis & Young', playing their own style of world jazz to much acclaim. He plays clarinet, flute, guitar, didjeridu and has a decent set of pipes on him. So, an accomplished musician then.
But what makes his music particularly worthy of consideration are his lyrics. .
His life story is a complex one; the story of a gifted man with a foot in two worlds, two sets of cultural norms. Perhaps for many of his years, uncomfortable in both.
His cultural ancestry is perhaps one of the oldest and most richly spiritual to have graced the earth. But one which has had to struggle to survive the coming of successive waves of European settlement.
For decades, his 'other world' has been one in which he has endeavoured to find an accommodation with the 'white' world, via his acting, both film and stage, and his music.
Tom has a life story worth investigating. It informs his lyrics, whether it be a small, sparsely written tale of domestic drama, or a larger, more allusive scenario.
“BENEATH THE SUN” was mostly recorded during 2013.
The album has been produced by Michael Hohnen, (an accomplished bassist, known for his work with Geoffrey Gurrumul Yunupingu, as sideman, mentor and friend) with a mix of delicacy, and raucous rock smarts.
Melbourne great, Ross Hannaford sits in on electric and acoustic guitar, with keys and accordion duties courtesy of Stephen Teakle. Tony Floyd provides the drums, with additional guitar, banjo, dulcimer, mandolin and ukelele by Craig Pilkington. Brass and reeds are written and arranged by Eugene Ball, Tony Hicks and Jordan Murray. Strings are arranged and played by Erkki Veltheim and Melanie Robinson.
The albums kicks off with “ANGELS”; perhaps an odd choice for a lead-off track. The vocal is a little uncertain, the lyric sometimes obscured, but it does focus as it progresses, and the brass arrangement gives it a great lift. I suspect this may be a first take, and in the trade-off between energy versus tidy production, energy wins.
My feeling is it should have been sequenced after “I CAN'T MAKE IT ON MY OWN”, where the raw energy would be a more fitting contrast with that tracks' intensity.
Second track, “CAN'T CHANGE YOUR NAME” comes in on a lovely banjo figure. Vocal more assured, and a nice trombone line giving it a certain Tom Waits quality.
“3 CROWS” has a distinct country rock feel, upbeat, and a definite contender for a knees up when played live.
“BLUE SHIRT” is a leisurely shuffle with clarinet accents, and some good country twang on the guitars. A lyric of domestic satisfaction.
“I CAN'T MAKE IT ON MY OWN” is not the sweet declaration the title suggests. The lyric is rather buried in the mix, but I suspect there is something very dark at the heart of this. This has a brilliant arrangement that enhances the sense of things spiralling out of control. The lingering image is of a drunken and regretful man howling at the moon- but is it regret, or the realization that his actions have a consequence unexpected?
“COME TAKE MY TIDES” is another song infused with a sense of longing, short and sweet, finishing way to soon. A simple but stately banjo line weaves through track.
“OPEN ROAD” is a mid tempo track pushed along with a rattling snare beat, and tight guitar chords. The brass arrangement again gives it an unexpected tilt, and the string lines hover at the back of the mix. This is one of the many very sophisticated, but understated arrangements to be found on this album.
“TIME WILL TELL”, with its wheezing organ reminds me of mid- 60s Dylan, circa “BLONDE ON BLONDE”. In fact, it could sit on that album very comfortably.
This is so good. Second thought- maybe “NASHVILLE SKYLINE”.
“THAT GIRL” is another track given a lift by the brass arrangement, and so many vocal inflections again recall Dylan. Quite a cooking track. Very satisfying.
“CHERIE L'AMOUR” has the Tom Waits feel again prominent. Touches of sax, and organ- very cool, very blue. Very St. Kilda. (Not enough songs reference Acland Street).
“RECKLESS” is a cover of the Australian Crawl classic, and this uptempo version is a great take. Tom has history with this song, and his take is a fond and respectful one. The Crawl would be pleased.
“UNFALLEN RAIN” is a country lament with mariachi style trumpet flourishes and subtle strings. The lyric speaks of the loss of spiritual connection for an individual, perhaps a people, and coming at the end of the album, indicates the import the lyric has for the writer.
There are things I would take issue with for this album.
In the sixties it was considered cool to bury a lyric deep in the mix, both as a ruse to get a dodgy lyric past the ever vigilant censor, but also to increase the mystery of the track. Fans would pore over a song endlessly trying to discern what was being sung. Mick Jagger made a fine art of it. The Kingsman drove the F.B.I. crazy with the suggestion that the drunken party anthem “LOUIE, LOUIE” may have been both obscene, and subversive (Neither in fact, it was just plain unintelligable!).
Tom E. Lewis does not have a technically great voice. But he does have a soulful one, and he can tackle a lyric with delicacy, or great power as may be required. He can also craft an elegant lyric, and he certainly has some things to say. And that is my point. I want to hear him. Too often, he is buried in the mix.
So, one point off the sonic score for not giving the listener clear access to the song itself.
That said, the mix is otherwise delicious. Heaps of details that initially can sound rather cluttered (think 'EXILE ON MAIN STREET'), but which with more listening, delineate quite nicely.
This is a very different and unique sounding Aussie album.
I would pick Toms' influences as Kelly, Dylan, Waits, and many of the great story-teller writers. I wonder who he would point to?
The production is informed, I think, by the sound of Calexico, Shearwater, and the Americana - infused end of the rock spectrum. I cannot think of another album from an Australian artist that has a similar sound.
At times, definitely country, but at other times, I could imagine this being belted out in the Gershwin Room, at the Espie Hotel in St. Kilda. Indeed, the inner photo shows Tom sitting on those very steps.
Photo: Sam Karanikos
Final thoughts- I loved this album from the first play through. I kept thinking, where the hell has this come from? It is certainly unique in so many ways. You would seldom get to hear this on commercial radio, with just the A.B.C. and community radio giving it the support it deserves.
Anyone who has a taste for the afore mentioned artists, should get this in a heartbeat. It is that good.
Tom, I would like to shake your hand. This is excellent.
A walking encyclopedia of music, David’s broad music knowledge is a valued member to the team. Without music, there would be no HiFi. Look out for his words on current, past and future music, as well as album reviews.