As you might have noticed, I’ve been banging on about this one a lot over the last couple of weeks, and it seems to be shaping up, alongside maybe Joanna Newsom and Magic Lantern and so on, as one of my favourites of 2010.
Hans Chew, to make things a little clearer, first came to at least my attention with his rollicking piano playing on the last couple of Jack Rose albums. Through Jack’s posthumous “Ragged And Right” EP, it also became clear that Chew figured in a rowdy cosmic Americana outfit from Brooklyn called D Charles Speer And The Helix: typical of musicians in Rose’s orbit, The Helix mix rootsy good times with parallel lives as practitioners of hardcore psych-out music, in The No-Neck Blues Band, Sunburned Hand Of The Man and the like (check out their “Distillation”, incidentally, for some heady Dead/”Europe ’72″ vibes).
Chew’s piano work on all this – loose and groovy, lascivious, honky-tonking – is great, but his contribution to this summer’s “Honest Strings”, the vast and cherishable album compiled by Three-Lobed Recordings in honour of Jack Rose, was still quite a shock. “The Heart Is Deceitful” revealed Chew as not just an able sideman, but a terrific and full-blooded singer-songwriter, too.
That promise is borne out by “Tennessee And Other Stories”, nine originals and one cover made in the company of various fellow travellers from the Helix family, and housed in one of the loveliest sleeves I’ve seen in a while. The cover is of Tim Rose’s “Long Time Man”, or at least Nick Cave’s version of the same, and showcases Chew’s impressively soulful and weathered pipes, though it isn’t quite typical of the rest of “Tennessee…”
Much of the album actually resembles an easy-going, if occasionally fatalistic, roadtrip through the southern states: “Long Time Man” is preceded by a fervid boogie-woogie (“New Cypress Grove Boogie”) and followed by “Forever Again”, which mostly matches the stride of early ‘70s Dr John.
You could easily fill up a review of “Tennessee…” with sepia reference points: Leon Russell, Nicky Hopkins,Hargus ‘Pig’ Robbins, The Band, maybe something in the orbit of Delaney And Bonnie. The closing “Only Son” is even faintly reminiscent of Elton John – circa “Tumbleweed Connection”, I should hastily add.
Usefully, though, Chew has a swing and feel for his material which makes him sound anything but an academic tourist.. Consequently, “Tennessee…” doesn’t come across like a pastiche of its influences, but a spirited and open-hearted, craftsmanlike work that could easily have been mislaid for the best part of the last 35 or 40 years. A lost classic from 2010, perhaps: Tennessee… is limited to 500 vinyl copies but, fortunately, apparently infinite downloads.