Brian Dewan
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Brian Dewan


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The best kept secret in music


"Art in Review; Brian Dewan and Leon Dewan"

Sculptors, electronic musicians, inventors and cousins, Brian and Leon Dewan construct what they call Dewanatrons: electronic music-making machines that can be played by a person or can function on their own. The machines are not digitally programmed computers but, as the dryly comical exhibition catalog explains, ''solid-state analog synthesizers,'' and they are contained in neatly made, boxy tabletop or wall-hung wooden constructions equipped with dials, toggle switches, buttons and speaker openings. Some resemble Arts-and-Crafts-style housings for radios, clocks or meteorological instruments. Some look like props for the old ''Dr. Who'' television series. They have titles like ''The Speaker of the House'' and ''The Flying Dutchman.''

In the gallery the various machines intermittently emit electronic whistles, chirps, tweets, buzzes and whoops, creating what sounds more like a gathering of birds than anything conventionally musical. Because they pipe up at unpredictable intervals, you get the slightly hair-raising feeling that each has its own consciousness. One instrument, the two-sided ''Dual Primate Console,'' is designed for giving chamber concerts, which the Dewans do at the gallery on Saturday evenings.

Those musical performances are subsumed, however, within the cousins' larger performance as eccentric inventors and visionary entrepreneurs exploring and sharing a new, offbeat world of music, technology and homespun craft. - KEN JOHNSON - The New York Times

"The Great American Storytelling Tradition Lives On"

Most of the earliest songs known to man were written as a way to share and preserve stories, but storytelling is an all-but-lost art in popular music today. This makes Brian Dewan’s peculiar brand of musical and lyrical stylings all the more refreshing.

His tales are often sad, occasionally angry, and sometimes joyful, but they are always sung with utmost sincerity. His primary instrument is an electric zither, a unique instrument he built himself, although he sometimes uses an accordion, piano, and many other instruments as well. His songs are crafted with the same meticulous care with which he builds his instruments, furniture, and countless other things. Dewan's style might not be for everyone, but if you are looking for something that feels both very old and startlingly new, rich in folksy Americana (the dark side more often than not), this album is a revelation.

Dewan’s first complete CD, Brian Dewan Tells the Story, begins with the fierce "99 Cops" intro, in which he bangs on the zither in a manner to rival any guitar god and angrily spits out the lyrics. They're almost a parody of cop-killer songs—these cops aren’t harassing thugs, they’re “sitting in a tree/K-I-S-S-I-N-G.”

Next comes “Obedience School,” an anthem-like tune in which the lyrics reflect an ambiguous attitude toward freedom as he fondly recalls a time when he was told what to do, which gave him a sense of security and purpose (as opposed to the confusion he encounters in a world where “Everybody is in charge/Cooks aplenty making broth for everyone/Bumping into everyone”).

Dewan’s storytelling prowess truly comes into play in the next few tracks, beginning with “The Cowboy Outlaw,” a delightfully creepy (and true) urban legend, given an appropriately mournful, dirge-like tune.

This is followed by the charmingly simple “The Record,” which begins with what sounds like bells gently chiming. The story isn’t much in itself, but Dewan perfectly captures the feeling of falling in love with a new album so much you want to listen to it over and over.

Then comes “The Letter,” providing a bit of comic relief, Dewan-style. It has a jaunty, catchy tune, and the lyrics basically consist of the typical dire warnings found in those chain letters we’ve come to love so much on the Internet. The charm of this song is that it is sung in a totally straightforward manner, as if the speaker believes that every word of the chain letter is utterly true.

The next track, “The Day the Day Stood Still,” is not a reference to the well-known sci-fi classic; it is, however, the most hauntingly beautiful track on Tells the Story. Dewan alternates between using his deep baritone voice and a delicate choirboy soprano, and the lyrics portray a landscape of peaceful beauty with religious reverence.

“Wastepaper-Basket Fire” is an abrupt change of pace, with its insistent rhythm that becomes increasingly intense to reflect the growing danger of the fire; Dewan’s fondness for old-fashioned values is again revealed as the culprit receives a just, if outdated, punishment.

This is followed by “The Creatures,” which starts out as a typical “the day the earth stood still” scenario, but ends with a happy twist, in sharp contrast to the next tune, “My Eye,” in which the eerie tune and Dewan’s matter-of-fact delivery plod along to carry the tale to its grim conclusion.

The tunes that make up the last batch of songs on the album are short but memorable. “Cut Your Hair” is another humorous bit in which Dewan rattles off nearly every complaint and put-down that young men with long hair have ever heard (“A boy’s not supposed to have hair like a girl!”).

In “Breezes are Blowing,” Dewan reveals his gift for writing verses that have parallel structures, giving the song a sense of flow and reflecting both the constant movement and circular nature of life with brilliant simplicity.

“Drinking Bird” features an accordion, and yes, it is an ode to those plastic drinking birds you can find in any decent novelty shop.

And, finally, “Feel the Brain” celebrates both the physical and metaphorical wonders of this mysterious organ, with a somber tune that builds to a stirring finale. It is a fitting conclusion to a remarkably original and intelligent musical achievement. - Kim Lumpkin - Toxic Universe

"The Operating Theater"

If you feel you haven't lived until you've heard a heavy metal electric zither riff, then do I have a CD for you. It's called The Operating Theater and no, I'm not kidding. On "Loathsome Idols", Brian Dewan rocks out on his self-crafted 88-string electric zither, doing his own musical answer to "In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida" in a song that takes down "the abomination" of false idols in today's world. Not familiar with the electric zither? It's an instrument that the gifted Dewan created from refurbished electric guitar and harpsichord parts, and it features eight Humbucker pickups. The instrument is one-of-a-kind and quirky, much like its creator. And that's the point, I guess: Brian Dewan isn't for everyone and that's okay.

Musically, he's a modern-day version of the medieval troubadour, a unique folk balladeer with a slightly macabre take on things, who mixes traditional fare ("Solomon Grundy") with that of his own invention. The Brooklyn-based Dewan plays an eclectic array of unusual instruments, including accordion, autoharp, zither, Moog synthesizer, theremin and "Mamola banjo", as well as organ and guitar.

One can't dispute the varied talents of this latter-day Renaissance man: he is a visual artist, illustrator, draftsman, furniture-maker/designer and musician, among other things. He created the shrine cover art for They Might Be Giants' Lincoln CD, and has done cover art or illustration for David Byrne, Yazbek, Stephin Merritt's various bands and Neutral Milk Hotel. His musical credits include playing autoharp for Laura Cantrell and accordion for Drink Me, being an integral part of the Raymond Scott Orchestrette, writing music for Sesame Street as well as creating compositions for the performance art of the Blue Man Group.

His music often consists of just a vocal and a single instrument, in a sort of modern minstrel-style sound. The vocals are reminiscent of a less nasal Phil Ochs or a less acerbic John Linnel of They Might Be Giants. This format allows for the power of old-fashioned musical storytelling, and that's what Dewan is about. Included here is a wry musical rendition of the story of "Rumpelstiltskin", something that brings a smile to the listener who has patience for it.

In listening to The Operating Theater, I marveled that Dewan's eclectic music found a home on CD (a good thing) and I wondered where an audience might exist for it today. I guess it would be a National Public Radio listener, or perhaps those who follow groups like Moxy Fruvous or They Might Be Giants. But Dewan's music makes those larger ensembles seem mainstream by comparison. This "Renaissance Man" might have found a larger audience for his balladeer-style music in the Renaissance, hundreds of years ago.

One easily can imagine some regal figure or feudal lord calling for "that master craftsman who also does the oddly dark music" to entertain the visiting courtesans. Once described as a cross between Burl Ives, Edward Gorey and Edgar Allen Poe, Brian Dewan uses intelligent lyrics and unexpected rhymes here to either chastise modern society ("The Trial", "Loathsome Idols") or pay musical homage to a sick day or the first day of school or intrusive kids or a Flexible Flyer sled.

The CD's title comes from the track "The Human Heart", a nice spare melody set against a subtly clever (and slightly grim) tribute to that aortic pump: "The human heart is an inscrutable thing / an immutable untiring thing / an inspiring thing / a preposterous thing / a monstrous thing / a lustrous thing / a wondrous thing".

Dewan lets loose his more gruesome side in "Cadavers" with lyrics like "Cadavers, cadavers, set them out to dry / Paint the head with pitch and put a penny in its eye / Tie it to a fender and drag it all around / Tell it that it ought to have been buried in the ground".

While Brian Dewan's The Operating Theater is a showcase for some of the man's quirky talents in song, it's not for everyone. But if contemporary parlor music with unusual zither accompaniment is what you seek, there's truly nothing else like it. - Gary Glauber - PopMatters


Two EPs for They Might Be Giants' Hello Recording Club (1992)

Brian Dewan Tells The Story (Bar/None, 1993)

The Operating Theater (Instinct, 2000)

Words Of Wisdom - The Humanitarium, Vol. 1 (Eschatone, coming November 2007)


Feeling a bit camera shy


Brian Dewan has two previous albums of original songs, Brian Dewan Tells The Story (Bar/None) and The Operating Theater (Instinct). His latest project is The Humanitarium (Eschatone Records), an ongoing series of recordings of musical artifacts drawn from folk material, parlor music, ditties, chants, jingles, historic popular song, and music for liturgical and institutional use.

Brian has played zither with the Raymond Scott Orchestrette, Drink Me, and three different symphony orchestras, as well as writing scores for theater and films of Ladislaw Starewicz, Three Legged Dog, Sesame Street, MTV and Blue Man Group. He is one half of the electronic music duo Dewanatron, with cousin Leon Dewan.

Dewan's I-CAN-SEE filmstrips have been screened at The Whitney Music of American art, The New Museum, The Brooklyn Museum, The Museum of Fine Arts, the Cinema Arts Centre and the Sundance Channel, and he is represented as a visual artist by Pierogi gallery in Brooklyn, NY.

He also provided album cover art for Neutral Milk Hotel, Beat Circus, 7 Hz, The Music Tapes, David Byrne and They Might Be Giants.