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Hans Chew - Tennessee & Other Stories

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Artist: Hans Chew

Album: Tennessee & Other Stories

Label: Three Lobed

Review date: Sep. 22, 2010

Until now, Hans Chew has been best known as a sideman. He’s played exuberant barroom piano on the last couple Jack Rose albums and contributed keyboards and vocals to D. Charles Speer & The Helix, a country-tinged combo lead by No Neck Blues Band’s Dave Shuford. Tennessee & Other Stories, his debut LP, gives a more complete accounting of Chew’s skills as a singer, writer and multi-instrumentalist.

On the face of things, it’s an anachronistic effort. His gospel-steeped piano and organ playing makes no references to anything that’s happened musically since Nixon stepped down, and you won’t hear a studio effect less than 35 years old. Chew’s writing is steeped in a Gothic American tradition of murder ballads like “Pretty Polly” and hung-over repentances like “Sunday Morning Coming Down,” with an occasional detour through the back roads of classic rock — “Magnet Moon” may be all about coming back to where you started, but its melody bears a more than passing resemblance to Blind Faith’s “Can’t Find My Way Home.”

But a peek at the writing credits shows that he’s not totally stuck in the past. The sole cover is Tim Rose’s “Long Time Man”; Chew also credits Nick Cave and Mick Harvey, who remade it with the Bad Seeds, and the cues he takes from Cave’s version amp up the song’s stewing mix of hatred developed both in and out. Chew writes with a matter-of-factness about psychological impairment and pathology — he even drops the latter word on “Queen Of The Damned Blues” — that feels very much part of a present in which people can watch cable series about their favorite disorder. On “I Wish There Was A Train,” the narrator puts his old corporate job on the same level as his grandparents’ sharecropping, as if to say we were fucked then and we’re fucked now. He may yearn for the past, but he’s not making any pretence that the past is better than the present.

In fact, in Chew’s songs, the past is pretty tense (thanks, Captain); parents die, people make mistakes they can’t transcend, fate sets you up for the knockout punch coming down the road. But that’s not stopping Chew from making a record that sounds like a thing of the past, and since he played most of the instruments himself, you know he wanted it to sound that way. Just because the past holds the root of his problems, he seems to be saying, that doesn’t mean the music didn’t sound better.

By Bill Meyer

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