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A New Kind Of Blue

by Lynden Barber - Sydney Morning Herald, 28 February 1989

IN AN EARLIER era, Stephen Cummings would most typically have been discovered leaning against a piano, cigarette in hand, in some deserted club, singing Billy Strayhorn's Lush Life.

On last year's album Lovetown, the former Sports vocalist played the role of the forlorn figure, lost in his thoughts at the midnight hour, to perfection, but this year's follow-up is everything that album represented and more.

Recorded with a sophistication that belies the modesty of its budget, A New Kind of Blue sets a new standard of maturity for Australian pop.

That old cliche about the need to slog it out for years on the pub circuit being Australian musicians' greatest strength has never sounded so redundant, for here is a record of multi-layered sensitivities that mocks the brutishness of the beer halls.

The most immediate change from the previous LP is the richness of the sound, which often resembles the lushness of British bands such as Scritti Politti (in their Sweetest Girl phase), Aztec Camera and Prefab Sprout, while avoiding the feyness of the latter.

Yet there's an essentially informal, relaxed feel to Cummings's music that locates it unambiguously within Australia's New World. Utilising musicians as diverse as guitarist Andrew Pendlebury and Vince Jones's bassist, Stephen Hadley, the songs here melt together country, jazz and folk sounds as if they had never been apart, with lyrics that are world-weary but wise.

Blue is a record that takes some time to smoulder its way into your affections, but once there, it glows like embers on a winter's fire. This is suave, adult music that bears the intimacy of confessions whispered in the early hours. Australia - or anywhere else, for that matter - is unlikely to hear a record as gracefully accomplished in the whole of 1989.

Lovetown Revisited

4 stars (out of 5)

by Clinton Walker - Australian Rolling Stone magazine, March 1989 (issue #429)

Stephen Cummings couldn't be from anywhere but Melbourne. Just as Melbourne's bayside suburbs, where he lives, with their squat red-brick semi-detacheds, don't seem right unless it's winter, cold, grey and windswept, Cummings, his salt'n'pepper hair now turned an almost Warholesque silver, don't seem dressed unless he's wearing an overcoat. I can just see him making his way through those empty streets, head down.

There's a note on the inner-sleeve of this, Cummings's fourth solo album, that says he "still resides in Lovetown, Melbourne" (after the title of his last album). The wordplay only suggests an irony.

Baby, it's cold outside, but it's safe at home. Trot out the cliches. Turn them inside out. A New Kind Of Blue has the glow of embers in a fire; but now it's the next morning, and the ashes have gone cold.

Since the demise of the Sports some eight years ago, Cummings has made a clutch of albums, with particular emphasis on the last three - This Wonderful Life, Lovetown and now A New Kind Of Blue - which is one of the most coherent and impressive bodies of work in a fully matured Australian pop.

To describe Cummings as an eccentric would be a trifle misleading - idiosyncratic is more to the point. As a songwriter, like a Randy Newman, a Tom Waits, or a Don Walker, he's developed a language of his own, and he's sticking to it.

Moreover, there's nothing that's big about his albums. He records quickly, and cheaply, and it's not that the results are small, just intimate. But to those who can hear it, Stephen Cummings speaks with a voice that's as beguiling as it is, by turns, soft and sardonic.

For a performer, and a man so handsome and well-dressed, Cummings is surprisingly nervous among crowds. Maybe this is a good metaphor for his hesitant commercial status; certainly though, the same sort of shyness doesn't afflict his work. He openly speaks from the heart.

Long noted as a fan of detective fiction, and a film buff who's written for the screen, Cummings revels in these influences. Like the best hardboiled writers, his words are chosen brilliantly, and used sparingly, to create something like the cinema's mise-en-scene. Cummings' songs work musically in tandem with narrative.

The forced neo-disco of Senso (his debut solo album) was thankfully abandoned almost immediately thereafter, giving way, on This Wonderful Life, to a sort of hybrid of blue-eyed soul and the acoustic songwriter's angst, which by now has been fully, beautifully tempered.

Collaborating again, with Dean Richards and old Sport Andrew Pendlebury respectively (even Joe Camilleri on one), and in the recording process with classically-trained multi-instrumentalist Shane O'Mara, it's kind of hard not to see A New Kind Of Blue as the final instalment in a trilogy. Coherence comes further from the thematic, emotional development it contains, a drama in which Cummings often casts himself as the central character. He's not the only character who recurs; one is even named, Jane, who first appeared on "You Jane" on Lovetown, returns on "Melancholy Hour" - "you're talking to stay awake, tell me Jane is anything wrong/she said don't ever use this against me in some dumb song." Cummings covers his semiotic bases throughout an album loaded with cultural references - from art movies (Law of Desire) to Beckett via Nick Cave. Cummings even quotes himself.

If Lovetown is about a collapsing relationship, it would appear that A New Kind of Blue comes in the wake of its final collapse, with its sense of resignation, even a little remorse.

Even when Cummings does indulge himself, as in "Screwed Up State of Affairs", the lyric seems so deliberately banal - "A screwed up state of affairs/And no one even cares" - as to be meaningless. But as is also the case on "A Life is A Life"; "life is just a waiting room, don't collapse like a pile of bricks", nobody can be so meaningless, and so stylish at the same time, as Stephen Cummings.

If singing the praises of Cummings' sophistication suggested for a minute he was less than accessible, it wasn't meant to. A New Kind Of Blue is luscious. Even when the melodies aren't arresting in their own right, Cummings knows, and uses well, the power of the gospelesque chorus, to lift them. The instrumentation and arrangements - mostly by O'Mara - are discrete and tasteful to a tee, and Cummings' tenor has that almost cracked, smokey allure.

Even if it does signal some sort of closing of a chapter, the best thing about A New Kind Of Blue is that it shows that Stephen Cummings sees life as something you just can't help living.

A New Kind Of Blue is a record for our times.

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