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Happest Man Alive

by Bill Holdsworth - Rave Magazine (Brisbane), 10 September 2008

3.5 stars

18 years after his Good Humour album, is Cummings smiling again?

One way or another, from his early days in The Pelaco Brothers and his pop profile in The Sports to his solo years, Stephen Cummings has more than 20 albums to his credit. Across that timespan, he'd never seemed all that happy but this set now outs him as a cheerful bloke - maybe. Anyway, it appears he's stopped agonising over making albums - this ten-track effort, made with long time mates Bill McDonald on bass and Billy Miller on guitar sharing the production, took only two days to record and a day to mix. That gives these ten songs a natural feel, emphasised by a more acoustic approach and a lack of drums, the percussion based on handclaps and keyboard effects. Still, this is no laidback affair. From the taut emotional downturn of Don't You Ever Listen To Me? to the more cynical, stressed tone of Sick Comedian, Cummings isn't resting on any of his laurels. But then, This Song Can Save You and Straight To Your Arms have a warmer aspect, and (mirroring his own journey into books) he indulges his literary senses in songs like Raymond Chandler And Edward Hopper and The Ballad Of Henry Miller. So he's happy enough then, I'd say.

Happest Man Alive

by Michael Dwyer - The Age, 3 October 2008

3.5 stars

The juxtaposition of effusive title and overcast cover provides a sardonic entree to Stephen Cummings' umpteenth album.

The juxtaposition of effusive title and overcast cover provides a sardonic entree to Stephen Cummings' umpteenth album of acoustic philosophising but the keynote feels more like sanguine acceptance than sarcasm. "Like it or not, this is the world that we live in," he sings on the way to the mellow chorus mantra that Love is Space and Time. It's a world of spooky swings and bumpy roundabouts; fond notes to fallen heroes (Raymond Chandler, Edward Hopper, Henry Miller) and only the occasional grumpy outburst at the TV. Sure, Sick Comedian, a howl of indignation at declining standards of politics, media and economic integrity, is one of the album's most potent and lingering tracks - and he's only warming up for the bilious snarl of You Know It All By Heart. But Straight to Your Arms is one of the most vulnerable and contented of his career and the meditative clarity of This Song Can Save You and What A Joy It Is to Dance and Sing is without apparent irony. "Am I thinking a little too much?" he wonders on the haunting penultimate track. On balance, it's probably just the right amount.

Happest Man Alive

by Bernard Zuel - The Sydney Morning Herald, 13 September 2008

(doubleheaded review with Randy Newman's "Harps And Angels")

It's not like pop music has ever been rewarding territory for the post-postpubescent but surely now is a terrible time to be wizened, greying or in the third, fourth or, heaven forbid, fifth decade of a music career. Programmers, bookers and editors want PYTs (pretty young things) not OAPs (old-age pensioners). Of course, some people are just too slow to realise this, like Stephen Cummings and Randy Newman. They keep putting out albums which insist on being driven by ideas and craft, relatively short collections of songs (Newman just under 35 minutes; Cummings just over 41 minutes) which are meant to be lived with, absorbed and then maybe discussed. Proper grown up music. When will they learn?

Newman's Harps And Angels is as sharp and precise a dissection of contemporary life as you will get, from the personal to the political, from the scabrous to the delicate. When it is satire free as in, Losing You, it feels so unalterably human and affecting. When it is satire rich it pierces the skin, most notably in the now celebrated A Few Words In Defense Of Our Country but just as potently in Korean Parents where Newman offers to sell you Korean parents to whip you into shape. "Look at the numbers/That's all I ask/Who's at the head of every class?/You really think they're smarter than you are/They just work their asses off/Their parents make them do it" And it all comes wrapped in the blues and ragtime, wonky country and woozy marching band, Sino and Shilo. Class all the way.

Stephen Cummings is a different type of writer to Newman, though I suspect he's a fan. Cummings' humour is more often slipped under the radar, in the foibles of his imperfect characters or in a throwaway line whose pinprick is felt almost as an afterthought. More typically, it is observation and intuition about how we stumble through life that mark his songs. After a couple of busy sounding records, Happiest Man Alive is a more stripped back, almost unplugged album playing to Cummings' strengths: his storytelling ability, his warm voice, his sense of being right there in your life. There's the punchy and sharp-featured Sick Comedian (a title Newman has worn once or twice in his time), but elsewhere Cummings posits you in an anteroom, telling you stories against the background of guitar and occasional flecks of keyboards, the rhythm held back. This is a particular type of soul music, a blend of Texas and Melbourne. It's class all the way too.

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