Ethan Lipton sees things differently than you and I. Where we see a lone man strumming a ukulele, he sees a veritable orchestra. Where we recognize defeat in the minutiae of our everyday lives, he finds, if not exactly triumph, then at least enough of the small victories to make it all worthwhile -- and to keep on smiling. In this, he is a man out of time.
Lipton (along with his mutable "orchestra") has been performing steadily over the past year on New York's cocktail circuit, at places like Fez and The Living Room in downtown Manhattan. In a different era Lipton would have been singing these odes at supper clubs to the accompaniment of silverware chiming against plates, amid the rustle of tablecloths and the bubble of gay banter. With the distinct high warble of his voice, homespun folksy tunes, and his gentle good manners, he seems to have mistakenly wandered into the 21st Century directly from the Great Depression. Indeed with his natty moustache and funereal suit, there's something almost Chaplinesque about his persona. On the inside jacket of his just released CD, A New Low, we find our man caught before a graceful Brooklyn brownstone, in a light of glorious sunshine, quietly clutching an umbrella. If this doesn't declare a personal philosophy of living, I'm not sure what does.
A New Low takes in a performance recorded in June of last year at Low Bar in Brooklyn. At 29 minutes in length, it's an introduction to, rather than the definitive of, but it ably demonstrates Lipton's penchant for championing the invisible class (a group somewhere beneath the underdog, since the underdog at least gets recognized); it also displays his brilliant gift for the unexpected rhyme.
For openers, there's this: "Don't hate the famous / For being famous / Don't hate the sad / For being blue / Don't hate your family / For knowing you so well / And don't hate me / For loving your best friend." It's the atypical sting in the tail, and from here the tone is set. "Place to Go" describes the unmitigated joys of office work, a place where "Everybody loves my opinion" and where "I'm a man (hey ) / I know where everything is on my desk." There's a medley of three or four "unfinished" songs that conspire to take up an entire minute and a half, and then the epic of unrequited love that is "Lonely, Poor and Fat". It's the centerpiece of the album, a song that calls out to the leaden heart in all of us, to anyone who's ever been dumped, which is to say, pretty much all of us -- or you, at least.
Ethan Lipton's notoriety continues to expand, around Gotham and beyond. Recently he was featured on NPR's Morning Edition, and now there's this album, a neatly produced disc from Home Office Records. His is a sardonic voice that offers an unlikely kind of comfort against the vagaries of everyday life. With any luck his next release will feature the instant classic, "Whitney Houston", which is not collected here. In it, he asks the famed diva a question many of us have long wondered: "Whitney, what have you done to that sweet, sweet Bobby Brown?"
When word gets out, perhaps we'll finally get an answer.