The census count of these mild-mannered New York roots-poppers is spot-on, but the ethnic identity and familial ties of 5 Chinese Brothers don’t match the title of the children’s story for which the band is named. A level-headed bunch that prizes crisp musical clarity, a solid slice of urban country and a nice bit of accordion, 5 Chinese Brothers display the mature, humble charm of nice guys who can poke fun at themselves without making it sting too much.
First formed as the Special Guests at Columbia University in 1983, the group possesses two separate but equal songwriters: Baltimore-born singer/guitarist Tom Meltzer is a witty obsessive who translates his insecurities into comical appreciations of baseball, women, Brooklyn, Cubism, family and Neil Young. Bassist Paul Foglino plays the sensitive sad sack who dreams big and sometimes wins at love, putting it all into heartfelt, honest testimonials. If the two men’s lyrics occasionally succumb to gawkiness or mawkishness (there’s only one They Might Be Giants, and true Nashville sap doesn’t run north), the quintet’s handsome records are otherwise appealing and entertaining.
Originally the title of a cassette sold at shows, the widely released Singer Songwriter Beggarman Thief contains some of the same songs in remixed or rerecorded form. Betraying a measure of diffidence and a stylistic personality still being firmed up (the folk influence is notably stronger than it would ultimately become), the CD boasts such essentials of the canon as “She’s a Waitress (And I’m in Love),” “Paul Cezanne,” “My Dad’s Face” and “If I Ain’t Falling.” Stone Soup benefits from the arrival of guitarist Stephen B. Antonakos, a tasteful picker who puts a pungent twang into some of the better-developed (but less overtly humorous) numbers; an increased accordion role for keyboardist Neil Thomas adds a bit of Cajun seasoning. Also, the production is richer and the playing more confident. Meltzer, who had the lion’s share of memorable tunes on the first album, comes through here with “The Avalanche Song” (“And I wish we were married/So we could get divorced/Get over this loving stuff/Let nature take its course”) and “Mr. Williams,” a wild faith healer’s pitch. But it’s Foglino who has the presence of mind to celebrate the real-life “Amazing Delores,” refine his romantic sensitivity (in the lovely “Nothing but Time” and “A Lot of Nights”) and make the philosophical point of “You Are Where You Want to Be.” Unfortunately, both writers disclose creative indiscretions. Meltzer’s vituperative “Walk Away” is a churlish mood-buster, “My Friend” is a sorry gift for Neil Young and “Faith in Something Bigger” ends the album in a happyface state of personal grace. Meantime, Foglino gives in to his sentimentality: he isn’t very nice to the woeful characters he creates for “Couldn’t Fall in Love” and the irony of “Trust Me” protests far too much.