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Skeleton Key

by Noel Mengel - The Courier Mail (Brisbane), 13 October 2001

...Blues, country and soul flavours work gently through the mix, while the hushed, less-is-more arrangements suit Cummings' songs perfectly. Anyone who enjoys listening to records from the likes of John Hiatt, Ry Cooder and the solo work of Daniel Lanois will find plenty to sustain them here...

anyone have the full review?

Feature album of the week

4 stars out of 5

by Mitchell Peters - Timeoff, 16 October 2001

For two decades, Stephen Cummings has delivered fine album after fine album. Skeleton Key recalls the simple beauty of the masterful Lovetown. This is an album littered with secrets, hushed tones and inspired playing.

Cummings has kept things tight. There's only ten songs - the album is his most direct and purposeful in a decade. Who couldn't help but be seduced by titles like 'You Put A Pain In My Heart', 'Teardrops Will Fall Tonight' and 'No More Goodbye Songs'.

It's here on Skeleton Key where Cummings delivers his first three-chord stomper in 'New Cosmic Blues', drives a melody into your brain with 'Stellamare' and writes his best waitress song since 'You Jane' with 'The Truth About Love'.

Cummings' guests include Rebecca Barnard, Shane O'Mara, Bruce Haymes, Peter Luscombe and Ross Wilson, who contributes harp.

Skeleton Key

5 stars out of 5

by Jeff Jenkins - Addicted To Noise (Australia), October 2001

"It's not dark/But it's not yet light" - Love Is Mighty Close To You.

"Life, he thought, depends on love. It was all that mattered. He was loved and now he could love. All his transgressions had been forgiven, not by some indifferent god, but by himself. He could feel love, he could reach out and touch it. He would now move forward into the thick of it. It'd been a hell of a year." - Stay Away From Lightning Girl.

Nikki Webster's "Depend On Me" could have been written about Stephen Cummings. Like an old friend on a lonely night, you can always rely on him. He'll make you laugh and cry. Wry, poignant, brilliant.

Skeleton Key (on W.Minc) is his twelfth solo album and, in a year in which both Paul Kelly and Neil Finn haven't been able to match past glories, Cummings is at the peak of his powers.

Of course, no-one does a simple acoustic song better. Skeleton Key's title-track opens the album ("Oh, with what key shall unlock this heart of mine?"), and musically it's a simple statement, with just the voices of Stephen and Rebecca Barnard and Shane O'Mara's guitar. But it leads into 'Stellamare,' a wonderful new track Stephen wrote with Christopher Marshall, showcasing a great band (Shane O'Mara, Jeff Burstin, Bill McDonald, Michael Barker and Bruce Haymes).

The playing and production (Cummings with O'Mara) give these songs the perfect setting. The song titles tell part of the story - 'You Put A Pain On My Heart,' 'Teardrops Will Fall Tonight,' 'New Cosmic Blues,' 'The Truth About Love,' 'Is It Me That You Love?' - but Skeleton Key is not 10 very sad songs. There's a humour born of a world weariness and bittersweet experience.

'The Truth About Love' is a gem, reminding of the rollercoaster ride of Stephen's classic Jane trilogy. Customer meets waitress, falls for waitress, marries waitress - listen to the song for the rest. Skeleton Key follows Spiritual Bum and Stephen's second novel, Stay Away From Lightning Girl.

Many of the songs came to him when he was flat on his back, in pain, with a back problem. Back on his feet, he had a call from an Adelaide filmmaker, J Harkness, a fan, who wanted some songs for a movie he was making called Dope. He even cast Stephen as a judge. "I'm not about to throw in music for the silver screen," Stephen laughs, "but the film did mark the beginning of the album."

The result is an album that's sad and funny. And a classic.

Skeleton Key

4 stars out of 5

by Sandra Bridekirk - Weekend Review, The Australian, 27 October 2001

If the Australian rock industry was a room and its stalwarts were the furniture, then Stephen Cummings would be the comfy old armchair in the corner, sunk into gratefully by those who eschew the shinier, sleeker, more commercially oriented models of modern music.

This is Cumming's 10th studio solo album and the pedigree shows: there's a gentle ease that Cummings is writing from the heart; indeed, many of the tracks on Skeleton Key are about the healing qualities of love (none more so than the achingly intimate title track). As ever, Cumming's voice is compelling - whisky and cigarettes, tears and laughter, pain and pleasure - as he moves around in his familiar landscapes of rock, blues and a little bit of country. There really isn't a weak song here, except possibly Is It Me That You Love with its tongue-in-cheek string of songwriting cliches.

Arrangements are simply and effective, meaning the vocals and lyrics are the focus, particularly on The Truth About Love, the tale of a waitress-customer romance (a practised story teller, Cummings is also a twice-published novelist). Crank up cathartic tracks such as the brilliant Stellamare - sung with a skin-tingling rasp - and you'll never write off old rockers again.

Skeleton Key

4 stars out of 5

by Larry Schwartz - Sunday Age (Melb), 28 October 2001

...This is as strong an outing as we've heard from a year rich in fine albums from singer-songwriters as diverse as Bob Dylan, Ron Sexsmith and Lucinda Williams, this is one of the finest.

anyone have the full review?

Skeleton Key

4 stars out of 5

by Shaun Carney - Green Guide, The Age (Melb), 1 November 2001

Apart from Paul Kelly, no other Australian solo artist has managed to sustain a recording and performing career at such a high level of artistry for as long as Stephen Cummings. But perhaps appropriately, given the melancholy condition of many of his characters in song, fate continues to throw roadblocks in his way. Skeleton Key, recorded for the local boutique label W.Minc, was to have been released several months ago but, at the last minute, the multinational EMI/Virgin terminated a distribution arrangement, throwing Cummings' plans for the album out the window. Now that Skeleton Key has at last arrived, through an Australian distributor, it brings news of a different Cummings, one who roams effortlessly across stylistic boundaries and more overtly pays homage to some of his favourite artists. There is a rolling blues (New Cosmic Blues), a massive psychedelic ballad (Stellamare), a sizzling piece of late night soul (Is It Me That You Love?) and Teardrops Will Fall Tonight is where Cummings gives full expression to his affection for Van Morrison. Cummings has never sounded this relaxed or this powerful, both vocally and lyrically. Truly a performer at the height of his considerable powers.

So The Stories Go

by Bernard Zuel - Sydney Morning Herald, 3 November 2001

Character sketches in country and blues.

I recently argued that Paul Kelly should not automatically be described as our finest songwriter. But the inevitable question is, if not him, who? Alongside Nick Cave and Tim Rogers, I would nominate Stephen Cummings. He is easily one of our great storytellers, capable of creating lives in miniature - a sketched few lines giving all you need to know about the man nursing his coffee at the corner table - but equally capable of taking one small element and building a life-in-song around it.

He has the poet's eye for the telling and true image. Yet along with this lyrical facility (check the seasoned eye on marriage in Time Trip), Cummings has always asked himself tougher musical questions than lesser writers. Whether it is funk, late-night soul, acid-tinged soul/rock or, on this new album, country and blues, he has been prepared to stretch his skin. The fact that his experiments inevitably come to sound natural and essentially Cummings is testimony to the strength of his songwriting.

Skeleton Key's exploration of blues and country is not quite straightforward. Teardrops Will Fall Tonight, for example (which comes after the harmonica-drenched New Cosmic Blues), mixes Jim Reeves melancholy with Gram Parsons, overlaid with a guitar solo from Shane O'Mara that toughens the mood. Love Is Mighty Close To You, on the other hand, breaks the downbeat mood with a bit of Baja - sunny Mexican-influenced guitar and mandolin alongside easy percussion.

Both styles sit comfortably on the album with the more traditional Cummings territory of The Truth About Love. This is a great song, a tale of a waitress and a customer (love sweet, then sour and finally truthful), built around shuffling drums, lonesome-highway electric guitar and a walking blues vocal. It is just one reason why Skeleton Key deserves your attention.

Skeleton Key

4 stars out of 5

by Michael Dwyer - Rolling Stone (Australia), December 2001, issue 594

Melbourne melancholic reaches a new cosmic plateau

"You've got to face life as it is, you've got to learn by experience/you've got to work out your own salvation with some diligence." The rootsy "New Cosmic Blues" sounds like a mission statement from former New Wave stylist turned novelist, Stephen Cummings. His distinctive, haunted melancholy remains central to the crisp acoustic arrangements of his 10th solo LP, not least on the yearning title track and the enigmatic "Stella Mare". But there's a striking emotional strength in the bright piano melody of "Teardrops Will Fall Tonight", a hard-won optimism in the country-tinged "No More Goodbye Songs" and a warm, philosophical resolution to an age-old scenario in the album's sage highlight, "The Truth About Love". Cummings has reached a watershed of spiritual peace and musical clarity.

Heartbeat Poetry

by Toby Creswell - HQ, Dec-Jan 2001-2, issue 86

[this review also covered the new Leonard Cohen album - ed]

Like Cohen, Melbourne musician Stephen Cummings has alternated his recordings with books - in this case two novels. Less self-consciously poetic than Cohen, Cummings's work is still character driven, with stories of two people trying to make a life together.

On his latest and 10th solo outing, Skeleton Key, Cummings, too, has his take on the noble eightfold path: Earth's sweetest joy is but disguised pain. It's a portrait of a marriage; two people accept each other and understand what it was that brought them together. It would be hard to find a relationship better portrayed than in "Time Trip", or to find love better expressed than on "Love Is Mighty Close To You".

Cummings is a master of poignant detail, the oblique image that captures a state of rapture. It was evident on his band the Sport's debut album, Reckless, in 1978. In the intervening years his language has become more direct and acute.

That he hasn't been acknowledged as one of the great lyricists of the time is still a mystery. Perhaps it speaks more to that fact that his songs explore the contradictions and the subtleties of relationships rather than paint generic pictures and glib platitudes.

Musically, Skeleton Key, lives up to its title. Produced by Cummings and Shane O'Mara, the largely acoustic format is full of nuance. Psychedelic swirling guitars are held underneath the gently swinging rhythm section of Peter Jones and Bill McDonald. It's a sound and performance Bob Dylan was getting for 1965's Highway 61. At the level where songwriting and performance meets, Skeleton Key is the finest Australian album this year.

Through these two albums one gets a sense of real life; they're not made in the hope of topping pop charts. Instead, they aim to pass on a few jokes, with some moments of clarity along the way.

Skeleton Key

4 stars out of 5

by Mark Dwyer - EG, The Age (Melb), 23 Nov 2001

A guy doesn't write songs with the wisdom, pathos and humour of The Truth About Love after a dozen laps of Chapel Street. Nor are there any shortcuts to the life manifesto Stephen Cummings intones with terse conviction on New Cosmic Blues. The rainy-day songwriter has long distanced himself from the currency of pop, but his 10th album finds him acting his age with a particularly liberated kind of clarity. Cummings' trademark melancholy drips from Skeleton Key and You Put A Pain On My Heart, with guitarist Shane O'Mara an indispensable right hand as always. But from the more country-tinted No More Goodbye Songs to the playful piano splashes of Teardrops Will Fall Tonight, warm sentiments and colorful melodies seem to reflect a new, more contented quality to Cummings' pensive streak.

Skeleton Key

9 out of 10

by Toby Creswell - Juice, issue 109, January 2002

The cover sets the scene. A petrol station. The darkness in the solitary hours before dawn. Lonely points of light. Two sets of bowsers stare at each other like speechless, courting robots. The kind of place and time where people are coming from nowhere, going nowhere. A place where connections can be made in the void.

Inside there's warmth and the clumsy behaviour of real people bungling their lives as best they can. Waitresses are flirted with. The moon plays tricks. Love waxes and wanes. In these 10 stories, in the words of Francois Truffaut, people meet, fall in love and drift apart.

Stephen Cummings, after 25 years of making records, has still not learned to fit in. Neither MOR rock nor alternative nor dance, Cummings follows his own bittersweet star. These songs have an ambience to them that recalls the likes of Rufus Wainwright or Spain, but they're too idiosyncratic to shoehorn in easily anywhere. The sessions, which feature some of Melbourne's finest (drummers Michael Barker, Peter Jones and Peter Luscombe; singers Ross Wilson and Rebecca Barnard; guitarists Jeff Burstin, Shane O'Mara and Garret Costigan; bassist Bill McDonald; and keyboards Bruce Haymes) co-directed with Shane O'Mara are low-key but layered with interesting ideas that only reveal themselves over time.

The parts never interfere with the whole and the result has emotional weight. It's in these ineffable moments that we hear little truths.

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