If you’re not paying close attention, one can be forgiven for quickly thinking that The Boat That Carries Us is a new release from a member of the Newman family, Randy in particular. On this album, Peter Himmelman sometimes evokes Randy Newman’s pleading vocal delivery and demonstrates a shared ear for witty lyrical irony.
But if you’ve been listening to Himmelman’s work for the past 30 years, the comparison to Newman is likely a startling claim. After all, to put it mildly, Himmelman has demonstrated a wide range of musical styles over the years. While he’s been musically active since 1980, his first solo breakthrough came in 1985 with the video for “Eleventh Confession.” Come 2002, he was nominated for an Emmy for the music for the TV series, Judging Amy. He also scored the first four seasons of Bones and was nominated for a Grammy for his children’s album, My Green Kite.
Himmelman can also be heard on the double-CD, The Complete Sussman Lawrence (1979-1985), the alternative rock band he worked with before going solo. He’s been around long enough to have a greatest hits collection, Mission of My Soul, The Best of Peter Himmelman (2005). On top of all that, he’s released an ongoing series of “rarities on what he calls the Himmelvaults. This fall, his music will be heard on the new action-adventure drama, Dig. That just scratches the surface of his projects—is it worth mentioning he married Bob Dylan’s daughter Maria in 1988?
Still, The Boat That Carries Us could surprise longtime Himmelman fans on a number of levels. Coming July 15, The Boat That Carries Us is something of a concept album as most of the songs either refer to travel or were written while Himmelman was in transit. The acoustic opener, “The Boat That Carries Us,” makes it clear the journeying is both literal and metaphorical. As we all look for the Northern Light to steer us home, we’re in a boat, he sings, that needs no sail. While “Afraid to Lose” sounds like a Neil Diamond-esque melody with an E Street Band backing, the characters are in a bus station with doubtful destinations.
Likewise, “Green Mexican Dreams” is a haunting litany of surprising imagery as seen through the perspective of a traveler who’s just been south of the border. Yes, there’s an obvious nod to Dylan’s John Wesley Harding period in this one. (Himmelman credits drummer Jim Keltner, the stickman throughout the set, for finding the right groove to give life to a previously flat song.)
The infectious guitar hooks of David Steele enliven “33K Feet” which is about an airline passenger trying to explain the visions he’s experiencing looking down. But not every track is so overt with journey motifs. Keyboardist Will Gramling, who was added after the main sessions were in the can, provided a soulful elegance on his organ to “For Wednesday At 7 PM (I Apologize)” in which the narrator apologizes for literally everything under the sun, including the sun that didn’t rise, to the rain and wind, to kettle drums, riots, and “for saying too much and being out of touch.” The most Newman-esque number on the set, “Mercy on the Desolate Road” is a pleading prayer to a God looking down on his hapless children.
In addition to the talents of Keltner, Gramling, and Steele, The Boat That Carries Us also boasts the work of veteran bassist Leland Sklar and producer, engineer, and mentor, Sheldon Gomberg. Credit Gomberg with urging Himmelman to come up with his warmest collection to date, apparently through the process of Himmelman writing the lyrics first and then working out the arrangements collaboratively in the studio, a new approach for the veteran songwriter.
As a result, the 13 tracks of The Boat That Carries Us is a thoughtful and thought-provoking collection of songs that are unified by the journey themes, but presented with a variety of moods, tones, and settings. It’s absolutely an album that deserves appreciation both for what it is saying and how the messages are delivered. Take Himmelman with you on your next trip—he’s a pretty good travel companion.[amazon template=iframe image&asin=B00L4LAY78]