Eric Schwartz,
That's How It's Going to Be
(Claritone, 1999)

The clarinet adds a hint Chicago-style jazz to the song. Eric Schwartz -- singer, writer, guitarist and finger-snapper -- sings the words with the voice of a cheerful storyteller. Any fan of good folk music will likely be sitting back and smiling within the first line or two of "Hattie and Mattie," the first tune on Schwartz's debut album That's How It's Going to Be.

But then the words start to click. The ears perk up a bit and the brain starts to process what you're hearing. Those of delicate constitutions and "strong moral fiber" will be dashing for the stereo to stop the evil song. But the rest of us will be loving it.

"Hattie and Mattie," y'see, are a sweet elderly pair of ladies who live nearby, wearing matching aprons, drinking tea and baking (special) brownies. They're also the "founding mothers of the revolution / Of mating with a blatant disregard for evolution / Lesbians extraordinaires...." Puts a whole new perspective on some of those little old blue-haired ladies you see always walking around in couples, eh?

By the end of the song, fans of irreverence will be eagerly leaning forward, waiting for the next bit of social wit. They'll be disappointed, however -- Schwartz isn't playing to a single crowd, and he's not a one-trick pony. The next song, "A Season with Dylan," begins with a murder (JFK?) that was "mourned by the moon." But the singer, who "tried hard to care," retreated instead into a summer of music and wine. Next up is "'Cuz Mary Said So," a happy kind of love song.

But don't worry, the irreverence is never gone for long. Take, for instance, "Me 'n' Jenny and the Lovely Marilu." Starting in a simple voice and guitar style, Schwartz sings of a Three's Company arrangement the way network executives would never have allowed. "I know I should consider stopping / 'Cuz I'm not sure I can endure another year of futon-hopping." And "Psycho Ballet" sounds like something any smiling folkie would play for a circle of bouncing kids -- until you listen to the words as Schwartz describes the scene in New York's Washington Park.

And then there's Kafka. Most people, finding a cockroach in the refrigerator, would grab for something smoosh-worthy with an exclamatory "Ew!" Not the protagonist of Schwartz's song, however -- he chats with the bug a while and even jammed a bit. (The roach, it seems, had a tiny Stratocaster in the butter bin, and the chatty homeowner wailed a mean sax.) But Kafka had a depressed personality lurking beneath his shiny exoskeleton, and voiced a desire to end it all. So the man ... well, the song is called "I Just Killed Kafka," so you get the idea. That's gotta be one of the best recorded "squooosh" sounds I've heard, and the aftermath -- a frantic dirge -- is excellent stuff.

The straightforward folk tunes are good, too, although by no means as startling. "My Lady of the Broken Glass" is a bittersweet song about loving someone whose heart is already shattered. And "Brother Mine" is a very touching e-mail to an estranged brother.

I'm told that people who see Schwartz perform live are usually eager to repeat the experience. Lacking that opportunity, pick up a copy of That's How It's Going to Be -- you won't regret it.

[ by Tom Knapp ]

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