Richard Julian's 'Slow New York' State of Mind
You might not guess that Richard Julian is from Delaware, given his elegiac treatment of Gotham on his latest recording, "Slow New York." Then again, Julian's adopted home has inspired more than its fair share of love songs.
In capturing the chaos, the need for connection and the quick-wittedness and easy humor that typify city life, Julian tends toward the universal. He name-checks the Sunday Times and Rivington Street in the title song, but he's more interested in portraying the experiences of New Yorkers, an approach he calls telling "stories in freeze frame."
If Julian were telling his own story, "A Short Biography" would portray him as a clever slacker, a man who does nothing, but does it beautifully. The jump-jazzy number -- complete with a Louis Prima- and Keely Smith-style shout-back chorus -- offers rambling thoughts such as "Oh, no, too many things to do/And I'm not gonna do a damned one." After an interlude by the sort of piano that, as Tom Waits would say, has been drinking, the song ends with a few odd notes and Julian's self-deprecating snicker.
But the song's wit gives the lie to its substance. Julian may portray his life as a happy ramble, but he rambles with the likes of Norah Jones, with whom he's been a frequent band mate. It's Jones's tipsy piano we hear, and elsewhere she contributes vocals. They're joined by many lesser-known but equally accomplished musicians and Julian pals. Although his producer, Brad Jones, is based in Nashville, the group recorded in New York, and the result retains a small-club feel.
A self-described "confessional singer-songwriter in basic black," Julian can do gloom with the best of them: His relationship with New York is the only one here with a happy ending. But despite titles like "Cold Grey Sky," his music never brings the listener down. In fact, he's at his best when he's upbeat. Consider "Cheap Guitar," a masterfully worked-out metaphor. It's measured, with a hint of sludgy blues, but a full Muscle Shoals arrangement wouldn't have suited a song about clinging to poorly made goods. As Julian declares, "You got to listen to your heart"; the six strings strumming behind him sound loose, a little tinny, perfectly imperfect.
"If a Heart Breaks," another standout, has the same sort of Latin-pop feel that made Paul Simon's "Cecilia" and "Me and Julio Down by the Schoolyard" so catchy. Like Julian's other songs, though, it's about something substantial, in this case ditching the attitude and learning to connect, even when the result is less satisfying than expected. Here a dying man says: "I'd like to leave you with a piece of advice/Don't take advice from anyone."
Julian's sardonic side also shows on "End of the Line," a customer-disservice interlude that ends with the admonition: "Sir, your business is no longer welcome at the happiness emporium."
Julian has had the usual music-business struggles, but ultimately he tempers his hard-earned wisdom with his lust for life, and the result is music that neither demands dissertations nor insults the intelligence. In short, pretty much the perfect soundtrack for that crazy city on the Hudson.
By Pamela Murray Winters
Special to The Washington Post
Sunday, February 5, 2006; N06