Minneapolis quintet Sussman Lawrence works very hard to sound like early Elvis Costello on its first outing, although singer/guitarist Peter Himmelman’s vocals also resemble Thin Lizzy’s Phil Lynott. The songs, which are clearly derivative of Costello and Joe Jackson, are still sharp enough to be entertaining. Absurdist pop culture lyrics add some originality; smart playing and solid production also give this dubious venture its limited validity.
Pop City — a double-album with 21 songs in a number of styles — is far less imitative and proves this likable band to be highly skilled and creative, smoothly skipping across genres (often several times per song) to play everything — jazz-R&B-rock-pop — with abundant good spirits and a commitment to nothing but making simply enjoyable music. (Only reservation: some of the lyrics are clumsy and/or trite.) The 2004 reissue is a double-CD of the two albums with liner notes by Jim Bessman, which explain that the band’s name came from a character Himmelman played on a Minneapolis cable TV show.
Sussman Lawrence then simply became The Peter Himmelman Band to support the frontman’s decision to become a solo artist. This Father’s Day, a doleful and sensitive singer/songwriter record (with some polite rock arrangements) dedicated to Himmelman’s late father, was originally released on the band’s label. After a video (for “Eleventh Confession”) became an MTV hit, Island reissued it. Free of the imitative amateurness of early efforts, Himmelman’s love, passion and intelligence come to the fore in a strong display of craft and talent.
Gematria, recorded in just three days, is an uplifting explosion of joyful ensemble playing that shows how tight and sympathetic these guys are. Himmelman’s lower- case lyrics are fairly meaningless (and worse, pretentious in spots) but his music has spirit, power and clarity that far outweigh such concerns.
Himmelman’s religious orthodoxy doesn’t intrude on Synesthesia, but a growing resemblance to Billy Joel (plus frequently colorless songwriting and production) is more than enough to curdle the album. Between dull electric raveups and oh-so-sensitive semi-acoustic efforts, only such tastefully full-bodied ensemble efforts as “A Million Sides” and “Surrender” have the right type and amount of starch to endow the songs with melodic power. (The CD and cassette have three bonus tracks.)
Himmelman became Bob Dylan’s son-in-law and went on to a very successful career doing solo records and music for television, film and children.