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Words of Wisdom

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Album Review

Enigmatic jack-of-all-trades Brian Dewan has dabbled in everything from carpentry to free-form electronic music and worked with everyone from the Blue Man Group to Sesame Street, so it comes as no surprise that his latest mission is to rescue as many long-buried American folk songs from "old schoolbooks, garage sales attics, and basements" as he can find and filter them through his sepia-toned armory of parlor-room instrumentation. Words of Wisdom, the first volume in Dewan's Humanitarium series for the Eschatone label, retains all of the snow-globe whimsy and dark humor of his two collections of original recordings, 1993's Tells the Story and 1998's Operating Theater. His self-built electric zither remains the delivery system of choice, but he peppers each tune with flourishes of accordion, autoharp, and creaky old piano, echoing the sights and smells of the era that spawned them (some are nearly 200 years old). Dewan's love for the macabre informs many of his song selections, some of which were obviously drawn from the dusty pages of children's books created in an age where parents and politicians had more important things to do than remove "questionable" material from scholastic texts for fear of moral depravity and potential lawsuits. Death appears throughout Words of Wisdom in many forms, from disaster ("The Miramachi Fire," "Only a Brakeman") to sin ("The Devil Made Texas," "Tobacco's But an Indian Weed") and — more often than not — folly ("Blue-Haired Boy," "Carve That Possum"), and in the grand tradition of the original Grimm's Fairy Tales, Dewan knows that a tragedy is called such because like life itself, there's no guarantee of a happy ending. In a way, these are the songs that Dewan has been honoring for years through his own work, successfully blending the imagery, vernacular, and autumnal ache of Ray Bradbury, the tall tales of Washington Irving and H.P. Lovecraft, and the comforting wartime illustrations of Norman Rockwell into a tangible museum of real Americana that, especially with this new project, masterfully conveys the pioneering attitude, limitless imagination, and dark whimsy of the pre-Information Age.


Genre: Singer/Songwriter

Years Active: '90s, '00s

A strikingly independent and original talent, Brian Dewan blends whimsy tradition and a subversive sense of humor into his many projects, which include (and sometimes combine) music, artwork, and furniture-making. A resident of Brooklyn's Williamsburg section, Dewan plays an orchestra's worth of quirky instruments, including the autoharp, accordion, Moog, and theremin -- as well as guitar and organ -- but his signature instrument is the electric zither, which he built in 1989 from pieces of an electric...
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Words of Wisdom, Brian Dewan
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