Newman is pretty darned good. But it’s too early to know if he’s the dude Amy Winehouse or the dude Duffy.
A few days ago BuzzFeed up and wet itself over Brit Soul-Pop wunderkind John Newman, calling the 23 year-old singer the “Dude Version Of Amy Winehouse.”
As a famous man once said, “simmer down, Beavis.” Comparing Newman to 27-Clubber Winehouse is a whole lotta hype, especially for a guy I haven’t even heard of yet. But I’m old and sometimes the latest and hippest doesn’t make it out here to the home as fast as I’d like. Regardless, dude Amy Winehouse is a claim that must be investigated, yes?
So I sat down, got the old Technics headphones out, and gave the kid a spin. Here’s what I concluded.
1: The first thing I listened to was “Cheating,” and it immediately got me suspicious. The song itself, an infectious dance pop morsel that recalls everything from Northern Soul to Alex Clare, is just flat awesome. But the producers process the living hell out of Newman’s vox and pull them relatively far back in the mix during the chorus, when he should really be shining, leaving him struggling to claw his way out from behind the horns. There was a similar hide-and-seek quality about the live performance on Jimmy Fallon. So right away I find myself wondering – can he actually sing?
2: As I worked my way through the videos on BuzzFeed and the tracks on the CD (available on Spotify here) I relaxed a bit. Newman can, in fact, sing. His range isn’t especially broad, although he’s relatively dynamic within his range, which seems to settle naturally into a high baritone. Still, there’s more emphasis on songs than virtuosity. Putting the song first is not a bad thing, of course, but letting the boys behind the glass hide you in the mix is.
3: The songwriting is solid. I’m assured that Newman does in fact write and play, so points in his favor.
4: Okay, that affected, over-styled singing-through-the-nose thing needs to stop. Right. Fucking. Now. It’s a useful effect on occasion, but overuse is grating. And Newman overuses the living shizzle out of it. Sing from the diaphragm, lad.
5: The opening of the CD, where he rattles off decades of Soul and R&B legends, announcing finally that this is his tribute to them, that’s a hell of a worthy way of kicking off your debut record. He apparently grew up in a home where Mom played Northern Soul all the time, so he may have come by this honestly. I hope so. I’m conditioned to see a put-up job with any artist who attains commercial success, and sometimes I probably get too cynical.
6: He has a look. It’s sort of half runway model/half pasty Northern English working class kid who got beat up a lot. He’s pretty enough that the girls will love him and the boys probably won’t be put too far off.
7: The BuzzFeed fangirl ain’t lying about one thing – Newman can move. Seeing a video isn’t the same as seeing it sustained over the course of an entire show, but my guess is that he’s a blast live.
So, all things considered, not half bad, and I’m very much looking forward to hearing more.
But back to the simmer down Beavis thing. The Winehouse comparison is a bit much as of this point. If we take a second to benchmark Young Newman against the competition, as it were, we have to conclude that there are others out there who are at least as good as he is at what he does, if not better.
For instance, I’m not sure how much of a nod I can give him vs. Clare, who seems like his closest analogue. On this side of the pond, Newman’s blend of classic/contemporary songcraft reminds me a lot of Fitz & the Tantrums. Newman is probably a little more “authentic,” in the sense that he’s leaning heavily into that UK fascination with pure Northern Soul, whereas Fitz is tapping a more commercial thread in his mid-’60s R&B influences and infusing it with overtly made-for-radio ’80s Techno-Pop.
Then there’s Mayer Hawthorne, whose 2013 Where Does This Door Go set Ann Arbor’s neo-Soul virtuoso apart from the whole damned crowd. He dug into the gritty ’70s Philly sound, somehow or another integrating it with ’60s and ’70s West Coast Pop and, of all things, Steely Dan. It’s impossible to explain, but the result was perhaps the best CD of the year. It hardly needs saying that Newman hasn’t yet had the kind of artistic epiphany that led Hawthorne to the next level. This doesn’t mean he won’t, but it’s too early to know. After his next record he may be on his way to earning the Winehouse comparison. Or he may be on his way to being the dude Duffy.
Finally, if Newman’s calling card is to be vocal virtuosity, I’m looking forward to hearing where it takes him. But at the moment, he’s not even in the same league as Ryan Shaw. Had Shaw come along 30 years sooner, we wouldn’t be talking about Otis and Wilson and Marvin and Sam, we’d be talking about Otis and Wilson and Marvin and Sam and Ryan.
That, folks, is not hype. Go listen for yourself. And there’s absolutely nothing about Newman’s debut CD that places him in that kind of conversation.
John Newman has a debut CD that accomplished and a career that’s rife with promise. But let’s not put him the hall of fame just yet