Steven Blane – Songs For New York Lovers

 Steven Blane – Songs For New York Lovers

Steven Blane – Songs For New York Lovers – Album Review

Ohhhh what has it been…about a year?  Year and a half?  Somewhere around there I suppose…it’s been a few minutes at least since the last time we featured artist/Rabbi Steven Blane on our pages, way back when I reviewed his record Boulevard Of Broken Dreams.  Dude’s great at what he does from what I can recall…though interestingly enough, I remember comparing him to artists like Elvis and Roy Orbison when I was last listening to Steven’s music, and I gotta say, I didn’t feel like those comparisons would apply to this new record nearly as much, if at all.  So either I was listening sideways back in 2021 when we last checked in with the good Rabbi, or he’s gone in a slightly different direction with his latest album – it’s one of those two things, and I’ll leave you to be the judge & jury as to which of those two that it is.

Giving you a glimpse of the showman/performer he can be, you’d actually find something like Steven’s “Autumn Song” closer to the spirit of the Sinatra-era than you would Elvis or Orbison this time around.  It features a stellar solo from Michael Johnson on the tenor sax, and steady combination of sound musicianship from the rest of the band backing Blane up, including Jack Glottman (Piano), Frank Levatino (Drums), and Kevin Hailey (Bass).  All-in-all, “Autumn Song” is one of those tunes you could find in a setting as grandiose as a theatre play, or in as intimate of a place like your coffee lounge, and no one would really bat an eye in surprise of seeing it at either, you know what I mean?  It wouldn’t be out of place…that’s what I’m getting at.  Steven’s on-point with his vocals and puts in a noteworthy performance that reveals the professional he truly is…and while it’s hard not to notice that something like “Autumn Song” ain’t exactly in lockstep with what’s happening out there right now perhaps, to Blane’s credit & the band’s as well, they all play this tune like it’s every bit as relevant as it could ever be.

The gentle sway of “This Love Affair” is probably a bit more close to something you’d still find circulating out there in the scene, while still remaining true to the vision that Steven has for his music.  We’re fairly square in the Adult Contemporary realm or Easy Listening perhaps a bit more than the Pop-Jazz combo you’ll find written in his notes along with the album, but there are still crossover elements for sure.  I don’t think anyone that was looking for Pop-Jazz is going to hear “This Love Affair” or “Autumn Song” and turn away from what they hear…there’s more than enough in the music to bridge the gap.   What I really like is that you can always hear the commitment and conviction that Steven plays with, which is actually seriously crucial in the context of playing anything outside of whatever’s on the Top 40 and/or dominating the mainstream.  If you’re going to do things differently than the rest, then own it…that’s all I’m saying, and quite clearly, Steven feels that same way.  You can hear the confidence in his performances…he plays a song like “This Love Affair” like it’s exactly what’s happening in the right here & now of the music-scene, and it’s completely because of that commitment he brings to his songs that they all stand a chance of breaking through to the modern-day era much more than you might assume.  Maybe he breaks through with the melody of a song like “This Love Affair” and gets his tune spun on any of the stations that play the music I’ve cited genre-wise…or maybe good ol’ Wes Anderson gives him a call one day and his songs go for a ride on the soundtrack of some strange Hollywood movie – you never really know where a tune can end up once it’s released into the world, but he’s truly got unique options.

“The Rabbi’s Tzitzit” is an interesting song in the sense that I can’t recall ever having heard a song with this as its core theme before – and “it’s hard to miss it,” as Steven sings.  For those of you like myself that wouldn’t know what a ‘tzitzit’ even is and had to look it up, it refers to the tassels worn on ceremonial Jewish garments, or the specially knotted fringes you’d find on them.  Don’t get me wrong, I’m sure there’s something to celebrate about bringing aspects of the Jewish faith to the forefront of a song that’s going to excite the Jewish community…and I applaud the good Rabbi Blane for making the attempt.  Is it going to fly with the majority of folks out there?  Uniqueness can work for you and against you in many ways – and I’d suspect that “The Rabbi’s Tzitzit” is going to appeal to a narrower slice of the potential audience is all.  Not so much for its tie-ins to Jewish faith, that’s all well & good as far as I’m concerned…the actual concern with this track is that it’s intellectually above most people’s heads.  And any time you create something like that, you’re no longer catering to the masses.  It’s certainly not wrong, and it’s definitely not discouraged here on our pages, but there is a reality to creating music that challenges listeners to look things up in order to fully understand what they’re listening to.  As long as Steven’s comfortable with being the kind of artist that’ll write over the heads of the mainstream, then I’m sure he’s cool with all that.  He’s looking up to artists like Tom Waits, Leonard Cohen, and Billy Joel from what I’ve read…and all of those dudes chose to take their music on a similar route in that regard.  “The Rabbi’s Tzitzit” still sounds great…it might not be the number one track for accessibility, that’s all.

Honestly, I think the biggest battle that Steven’s fighting against here, is that even with all the quality he’s putting into these tunes, we’ve heard something throughout music’s history before that’s going to remind us of what we’re hearing on this record…which makes these songs feel like we already know them somehow, even when we don’t.  “I Hurt Myself Today” for example, is exceptionally well-played, and even fairly unique within this set for all the extra drama it contains…but even in that respect, it still can’t shake the feeling of familiarity.  For those out there looking for something & anything that sounds like what Steven is creating, that reminds them of the music they used to love that has now become so much more rare of a find, that aspect of familiarity becomes a tremendous asset and a huge win for him.  For the rest of the people out there that feel like they’ve either been there and done that, or would just relegate what they hear to a style of sound that the world has long moved on from…it’s much harder to say that Blane has done enough to convince them to come back.  Quality is what it is…but it’s only going to take him so far…I might personally be jazzed by professionalism and passion in all-forms whether it’s Death Metal or Classical Instrumental music, but I’m not the average everyday listener.  “I Hurt Myself Today” is a great example of a quality song that could easily get lost in the world today…and it’s not too tough to realize that Songs For New York Lovers could also become a victim of the same circumstances.

I mean…obviously right after I write all that out, “Thanksgiving” comes on and I’m reminded about just how massive the balance of a bank account an artist like Michael Bublé would have, and how there’s always an audience for any style of music in the modern-day era…it’s just a matter of finding them, or them finding you.  “Thanksgiving” is humble, brilliantly well-played, and a real highlight in the first half of this record that brings Steven’s potential accessibility shining to the surface.  It still leans hard on that showmanship aspect of music, but we have to look at that as part & parcel of what the man creates – that’s who Steven is.  Like I was saying…if anything about “Thanksgiving” instantly brings an artist like Michael Bublé to mind, chances are, Blane is on the right track when it comes to reaching the masses.  All-in-all, from the stunning piano solo to the steadiness of the rhythm section, saxophone contributions and the singing from Steven, you’ve gotta admire how exceptionally tight this band is on any given tune.

“The Muze” is interesting to me.  It’s one of the most Cohen-esque in terms of identifiable influences on the writing & whatnot.  I don’t know that I’d even necessarily accuse this particular song of being perfect – I think that might be more arguable this time around.  I think it’s one of those perfectly imperfect songs, that perhaps may have been able to come out a fraction more polished in a few spots here & there…maybe…but in terms of what we trade for the artistic depth you’ll find, I personally feel like Blane finds a much more engaging track for the heart & soul with “The Muze.”  This would be one of what the kids out there like to call the ‘deep cuts’ you know?  As in, “The Muze” isn’t geared towards or designed to be a single, so much as it becomes honest songwriting and genuine entertainment.  If he had that legendary growly rasp of someone like Tom Waits, you’d find a track like “The Muze” would likely be able to slide right into one of his later records, like Alice.  This cut has that similar sound &lyrical wisdom to it, and a vibe that seems to vividly hang & trail in the air like the last wisps of smoke out of the lounge.  Steven’s poetic nature comes out really strong within the words of this tune.  I don’t know that it’s my favorite performance on the record overall, but it would definitely be up there with my favorite songs.

If you look at the sequencing of the lineup on this record, you can see it’s almost set up like it’s one for the people, and one for Steven, track for track.  Especially as it heads towards its mid-section with tracks like “Thanksgiving” and its level of accessibility, the level of artistic craft on “The Muze,” and the wildly upbeat energy of “Champagne” once again expanding the horizon of Blane’s potential reach.  So yep, you bet – would I rather hear a track like “The Muze?”  Of course I would – I’m with Steven and I’m much more in favor of art with tangible depths than I am about a cut created to get y’all moving and grooving out there.  Lyrically, there’s clearly still a lot of art in what Blane creates, don’t get my words twisted…you can still hear the craft in a cut like “Champagne” too, but yeah…the best way I can put it is that Steven will know what I mean more-so than anyone reading probably will.  “The Muze” might not be a track that I feel like fully realizes its complete potential, but it’s still awesome on an artistic level.  A track like “Champagne” has executed exactly what it intended to do, flawlessly, and within a spin or two, I feel like I’ve heard what it has to offer, whereas I might listen to a track like “The Muze” for a lifetime and always feel like I’m getting something new out of it every time I hear it.  All that being said, if you’re lookin’ for a track to bring out Steven’s party-mode personality to the forefront, “Champagne” certainly does that, and in the process gives the folks out there something they can dance to if they’re so inclined.

For you religious folks out there in the Jewish community, I’d imagine the chances are, you haven’t heard a prayer come out jammin’ quite like “Shma” does, which plays with the traditional prayer of Shema Yisrael, as far as I can tell.  Who says a Rabbi can’t get down, am I right y’all?  I really enjoyed this track…you can feel the cultural relevance, but you can also feel the vibe stand out brilliantly on this track too, largely due to the incredible performance put in by Glottman up front on the piano/keys, but also from Johnson’s sax set more distantly in the background too.  You add in the reliable rhythm from Blane’s guitar and the uniqueness of his vocals…and yeah…in my opinion, they’ve really latched onto something great in the energy of this song.  Meeting you squarely in the middle of that one-for-you-one-for-Steven format I was referencing earlier on, I felt like “Shma” ends up pleasing both parties perfectly.  For a song where I don’t understand a single word, and being a man that has so little faith I barely even believe in tomorrow, or that this valley of malls we’ve created has anything real to offer us, music has always spoken to me in ways nothing else seems to be able to, and “Shma” is a perfect example of that.

You certainly can’t fault the man or the band when it comes to executing on their plans when it comes right down to it…a track like “Coffee And A Rose” is about as complete as a track could ever potentially be.  For what it’s worth, I think this is the kind of timeless style of song that, while entirely rooted in the past of music’s history, still can’t help but charm listeners today.  Excellent bass from Kevin Hailey to lead the way…”Coffee And A Rose” has that sweetly mellow way of creating a combination of melodic rhythm & poetry that is as alluring as it is enticing…it’s the kind of track that feels welcoming, warm, and familiar to us, but in a way that you can’t help wanting more of.  So heck ya good Rabbi, you can put me down for “Coffee And A Rose,” and I might even stay for some of that breakfast you were offering to go along with it, yes sir.  It’s without a doubt one of the more simple recipes for a tune on Songs For New York Lovers at the core of its DNA I’m sure, but there’s something to be said for truly flawless execution.

“Juanita” would be one of those tracks that combines a more distinct element of ol’ Elvis at his more gracious & gentle…not so much The King Of Rock’n’Roll side of him that folks tend to associate with him, but the more stripped-down, sweet, and intimate sound he’d create in a ballad.  It’s a pretty song for sure.  I’ve got no real beef with it…I might not be the world’s biggest Elvis fan by any measurement, but I can appreciate what I’m hearing here.  I feel like Glottman’s borrowing a fraction of what he’s playing for ya with moments like what you hear around the 2:33 mark, but as to where from, it seems to be escaping me…for now.  I post up these reviews I write, then I end up recalling what I wanted to say in a comparison about a week later out of the blue…so feel free to approach me then, I’m sure I’ll have the answer I’m looking for.  Anyhow.  Like I said…no complaints here really – I’m actually a big fan of “Juanita” & feel like this track came out with the charming beauty I remember finding in Blane’s music back when I was listening to his Boulevard Of Broken Dreams record back at the end of summer 2021.

Not loving “This Déjà Vu” personally…it’s rare for me to feel that strongly about a performance from Steven being wide of the mark, but that’s the way I feel about what I’m hearing on this particular tune.  I think there’s always a bit of risk involved with being too-rhymey…and with short words that have no real flexibility, that risk becomes heightened…it can end up sounding like an artist is simply searching for a word that fits the metering, as opposed to saying what they really want to say – make sense?  I get that a lot out of listening to “This Déjà Vu.”  Beyond that, Blane’s tone drifts in & out throughout the course of him singing this one…sometimes he’s right on the money, sometimes he’s really…not.  It’s to the point where I’m actually a bit surprised to hear this track included to be honest with ya.  The occasional moment here & there where a tone or note slips out of gear is always fine if it slips back in eventually – but I’m not quite sure that this track finds the magic it’s truly looking for from the microphone this time around.  Usually that’s the result of a song that’s newer to the lineup, or not as rehearsed as the rest of a set by comparison…and I’d imagine that’s the case here.  Blane’s gonna look back at this song as it continues to grow from here though, and know that he probably should have let this one stay inside the incubator a bit longer as he looks back on it…in fact, I’d suspect he already knows that.  When everything else he does comes out as spot-on as it has throughout this record, you have to assume he’s hearing things in the same way we would…which is what really makes the inclusion of “This Déjà Vu” as perplexing as it is.  Great idea, great songwriting, great potential, incredible music…but on the whole, I’m not convinced this is quite at the level it needs to be to reach the high standard of Steven’s material.  Not yet anyhow.  Eventually, with more time and experience with it, I wouldn’t be surprised at all to find out that “This Déjà Vu” goes on to become one of the best songs in his catalog, but it’s not there yet.

As he rights the course for quality in the sound of what we hear from his vocals on “The Ramble,” and verifiably includes a huge highlight for his singing within the finale…I’m probably leaning towards how I felt about the rhyme-scheme being a bit too prevalent on this track for myself personally.  I’m not saying the song doesn’t have a high level of appeal to it, or wouldn’t be appealing to the masses out there – it very well could be.  I suppose we all have the things we like, the things that we love, and the things that can rub us the wrong way a little bit too, and “The Ramble” has a bit more of the latter for me.  I’m not a massive fan of the razzle and dazzle of theatre and showmanship type-stuff either though, so there’s that to consider…it’s well outside of my wheelhouse and what would tend to fall on my own playlists.  Take everything I’m sayin’ with the grain of salt that you should, and listen for yourselves to see how you truly feel about anything you find on these pages of ours folks, that’s how it works.  I’m just a tour guide and nothing more…all I can give ya is my own perspective on anything I’m listening to.  I can easily appreciate the professionalism and the precision, I can definitely dig on the fact that the performance you’ll find on “The Ramble” restores Blane’s new record back to the standards we know and love, but yeah…not my favorite tune in the set, and it feels like we’ve kind of heard something similar earlier on.

“Wintertime” is a solid finale that meets the showmanship/performance-aspect with melody at the halfway point I’m more comfortable with…though I’ll admit, he’s drifting real close to a holiday-type of tune with this track too, and you can see from our pages just how many of those I choose not to review each and every year.  It’s well-performed & well-played…it’s welcoming, it’s friendly, it’s got the level of passion and energy behind it that we like to hear from Steven Blane’s music to hit that mark of accessibility he’s seeking out…the details are there within his lyricism…plenty of positives to be found, rest assured.  It’s an interesting record overall folks…I feel like I might actually be the most invested in hearing where tracks like “The Muze” and “This Déjà Vu” could end up…they might not have been the most complete tracks you’ll find on the record at this present time, but they are definitely some of the album’s best ideas.  Tracks like “Wintertime,” I’m fairly convinced Steven & his band of talented cohorts could probably play in their sleep…but like I told ya earlier on, there’s something to be said for flawless execution too…any song where you can’t hear any noticeable imperfections will always be a true achievement.  It makes for a sweet and charming finale to Songs For New York Lovers, and provides the warmth you’d wanna find from a record like this to heat up your heart in the cold chill of “Wintertime.”

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