PETER HIMMELMAN PARES IT DOWN, LIFTS IT UP, AND PRESSES ON WITH PRESS ON, HIS VISCERAL, BLUEY, AND INEXPLICABLY PRESCIENT FIFTEENTH SOLO ALBUM
NEW YORK, N.Y.— When is the right time to release another record of original music? Ask the Emmy- and Grammy-nominated singer-songwriter Peter Himmelman and he’s likely to answer with a question of his own: “When is the wrong time?”
To a standard-bearer like Himmelman — about whom Parke Puterburgh, former Rolling Stonesenior editor, wrote in Stereo Review, “is on the same plane as Elvis Costello, Graham Parker, and Bruce Springsteen and nudging his way to ‘Dylanhood’” — writing, recording, and releasing new music is an essential part of living.
“I think of writing songs like I do respiration. It’s about taking in, and giving out,” Himmelman says. “The things we see and feel are often too difficult to convey in normal conversation.”
Press On, recorded live in the studio with the barest minimum of overdubs, captures the immediacy of Himmelman’s new songs and leaves his fervent vocals and guitar front and center. The 13 tracks, recorded in Los Feliz, California in June of 2019, feature players who are both musical experts and close friends of Himmelman’s: Jimi Englund on drums and percussion, Greg Herzenach on guitar, Chris Joyner on keyboards, and co-producer Matthew Thompson on upright bass. Although the recording process for Press Ontook just under four days, writing the songs, refining them, and deciding which of his more than 40 new songs would make the final cut, began over three years ago. The album is due out on Himmasongs/Six Degrees Records on July 31, 2020.
Around that time, Himmelman was excited enough about the songs to reach out to long-time collaborator Sheldon Gomberg to engineer and co-produce the new effort. After getting Gomberg’s feedback, Himmelman settled on a recording date with a rhythm section composed of well-regarded L.A.-based musicians. But one night, after watching the documentary Chasing Trane — based on the life and career of jazz great John Coltrane — Himmelman called Gomberg and canceled the recording sessions.
“As I watched the documentary, I got more and more inspired by Coltrane’s indefatigable insistence on digging deeper into the wellsprings of his creativity,” Himmelman says. “I felt there were better songs in me than the ones we had planned to record.”
For Himmelman, songwriting has long been a process of self-discovery. “There are technical tricks one needs to master, but for me the real work lies in transcending the mechanics of songwriting, and inhabiting that space beyond the rational mind,” he says.
In “Truth Proffered in a Hard Time,” a tune powered by rollicking, piano-driven swing, Himmelman portrays a character running for his life as he surveys the dystopian landscape of a — pandemic? earthquake? violent revolution? (Keep in mind this song was penned in 2018.)
When a hunger comes, everybody’s gotta eat.
I can’t hear myself think, people are wild out in the street.
Can’t you see the headlights of a thousand stranded cars,
burnin’ on the freeway like a new constellation of stars
The song’s protagonist then turns to his wife and sings:
I never loved you more than I love you today.
“The Wail of the Trumpets and the Clatter of the Hoofbeats” is another key track.In lockstep with Thompson’s bass and Joyner’s gospel-tinged Wurlitzer piano, Himmelman’s steely Telecaster is reminiscent of two of his principle influences — Howlin Wolf and John Lee Hooker — as it threads itself through lyrics that seem culled from our current moment.
Brain drain, sleepless Overload wordless.
Outside the crowds gather in the street, watching as history repeats.
They listen so close for the wail of the trumpets and the clatter of the hoofbeats.
The music on Press Onis both emotionally and musically varied — from the R&B flavored piano ballad “A Place in Your Heart,” with Himmelman’s familiar theme of Divine providence as its anchor:
Only God could have brought us together, only God can tear us apart
I’m so thankful I’ve gotta place in your heart
— to the incessant New Orleans funk of “Wither You Go”:
Put down the paper, turn off the radio;
you’re only just hearing what you already know.
That folks love blood and war and sex,
and that the night sky is full of little diamond shaped specks.
In “This is My Offering,” a mostly acoustic number punctuated by echoing strains of baritone guitar and harp-like piano notes, Himmelman sings of the humble power of unfailing love:
This is my offering it don’t laugh or weep, it don’t fall asleep.
It don’t roll, it ain’t no tank, but baby you can take this to the bank
— my true love is what I bring—this is my offering
The cornerstone of the album is the raucous, swinging gospel-blues of “Press On,” the album’s title track. There’s a mystic, confessional quality to the song, which begins with Himmelman wrestling with his own mortality as he picks out blues riffs in rubato time on his Gibson acoustic:
I’ve got a lucid feeling like something inside me is working up the courage to confront my own death.
I step out into water that’s colder than anger, so cold it feels impossible to take my next breath.
The musical moment he and the band capture in the first several bars is like a brief meditation. However, it’s soon followed by the crash of cymbals, and the open-throttle roar of a Hammond organ.
As I go under I think about my mother, I think about her hands just ‘a stroking my face.
I come up to the surface I look up at the sky I see swirls of red dust rising into space
And in the suddenness of the short, eerie, musical silence that’s created, there’s a momentary tension as the band waits for Himmelman’s cue. That tension is released by a conclusion of sorts. Perhaps the only conclusion that makes a lick of sense in today’s world: the jubilance of handclaps, tambourine, and a well-seasoned rock and roll band in full tilt.
Keep your head raised up and press on!
# # #
Press Onwas produced by Sheldon Gomberg, Matthew Thompson, Peter Himmelman, and Arthur Himmelman, and is set for worldwide release on July 31, 2020.