If you feel you haven’t lived until you’ve heard a heavy metal electric zither riff, then do I have a CD for you. It’s called The Operating Theater and no, I’m not kidding. On “Loathsome Idols”, Brian Dewan rocks out on his self-crafted 88-string electric zither, doing his own musical answer to “In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida” in a song that takes down “the abomination” of false idols in today’s world. Not familiar with the electric zither? It’s an instrument that the gifted Dewan created from refurbished electric guitar and harpsichord parts, and it features eight Humbucker pickups. The instrument is one-of-a-kind and quirky, much like its creator. And that’s the point, I guess: Brian Dewan isn’t for everyone and that’s okay.
Musically, he’s a modern-day version of the medieval troubadour, a unique folk balladeer with a slightly macabre take on things, who mixes traditional fare (“Solomon Grundy”) with that of his own invention. The Brooklyn-based Dewan plays an eclectic array of unusual instruments, including accordion, autoharp, zither, Moog synthesizer, theremin and “Mamola banjo”, as well as organ and guitar.
One can’t dispute the varied talents of this latter-day Renaissance man: he is a visual artist, illustrator, draftsman, furniture-maker/designer and musician, among other things. He created the shrine cover art for They Might Be Giants’ Lincoln CD, and has done cover art or illustration for David Byrne, Yazbek, Stephin Merritt’s various bands and Neutral Milk Hotel. His musical credits include playing autoharp for Laura Cantrell and accordion for Drink Me, being an integral part of the Raymond Scott Orchestrette, writing music for Sesame Street as well as creating compositions for the performance art of the Blue Man Group.
His music often consists of just a vocal and a single instrument, in a sort of modern minstrel-style sound. The vocals are reminiscent of a less nasal Phil Ochs or a less acerbic John Linnel of They Might Be Giants. This format allows for the power of old-fashioned musical storytelling, and that’s what Dewan is about. Included here is a wry musical rendition of the story of “Rumpelstiltskin”, something that brings a smile to the listener who has patience for it.
In listening to The Operating Theater, I marveled that Dewan’s eclectic music found a home on CD (a good thing) and I wondered where an audience might exist for it today. I guess it would be a National Public Radio listener, or perhaps those who follow groups like Moxy Fruvous or They Might Be Giants. But Dewan’s music makes those larger ensembles seem mainstream by comparison. This “Renaissance Man” might have found a larger audience for his balladeer-style music in the Renaissance, hundreds of years ago.
One easily can imagine some regal figure or feudal lord calling for “that master craftsman who also does the oddly dark music” to entertain the visiting courtesans. Once described as a cross between Burl Ives, Edward Gorey and Edgar Allen Poe, Brian Dewan uses intelligent lyrics and unexpected rhymes here to either chastise modern society (“The Trial”, “Loathsome Idols”) or pay musical homage to a sick day or the first day of school or intrusive kids or a Flexible Flyer sled.
The CD’s title comes from the track “The Human Heart”, a nice spare melody set against a subtly clever (and slightly grim) tribute to that aortic pump: “The human heart is an inscrutable thing / an immutable thing…an untiring thing / an inspiring thing / a preposterous thing / a monstrous thing / a lustrous thing / a wondrous thing”.
Dewan lets loose his more gruesome side in “Cadavers” with lyrics like “Cadavers, cadavers, set them out to dry / Paint the head with pitch and put a penny in its eye / Tie it to a fender and drag it all around / Tell it that it ought to have been buried in the ground”.
While Brian Dewan’s The Operating Theater is a showcase for some of the man’s quirky talents in song, it’s not for everyone. But if contemporary parlor music with unusual zither accompaniment is what you seek, there’s truly nothing else like it.