“THIS IS HOW IT ENDS,” THE DEBUT SINGLE FROM PETER HIMMELMAN’S FORTHCOMING ALBUM, PRESS ON, RECORDED IN JUNE 2019, TURNS OUT TO BE MORE PRESCIENT THAN THE ARTIST EVER ANTICIPATED
NEW YORK, N.Y. — Press On, Peter Himmelman’s forthcoming 13-song album, was recorded live in Los Feliz, Calif. in a total of three days. “We used a simple creative forcing frame for our three-day marathon session, which consisted of four rules,” Himmelman says. “Upright bass on every song, little to no cymbals and high-hats, no professional background singers, and as much live recording as possible. We wanted anyone listening to the music to feel as if they were in the room with us as we were recording.” These days not many players have the musical chops to record without stopping to fix mistakes, or to improvise complex parts on the fly. The musicians Himmelman selected for the project were capable of both, and they were excited about the chance to make a live-in-studio recording in a short span of time.
Recorded with the help of Himmelman’s longtime bassist/collaborator Matt Thompson, drummer Jimi Englund, keyboardist Chris Joyner, and guitarist Greg Herzenach, the spare, soulful soundsof the debut single, “This Is How It Ends,” allow room for Himmelman’s biting, and sometimes, nearly clairvoyant lyrics to rise up through the swirls of gospel-like colors within the musical arrangement. Producer and engineer Sheldon Gomberg notes, “the musicianship on ‘This Is How It Ends’ is of the highest quality. These guys are some of my favorite players around. The way they listen and respond to what’s happening is what gives the record its remarkable immediacy.”
“This Is How It Ends,” which Himmelman composed on the piano one afternoon in his living room in Santa Monica, California, was written nearly a year prior to his move to New York City in August of 2019. “As with many songs of mine that I wind up being most attracted to, this one was also a surprise when it emerged,” Himmelman muses. “I asked myself then and now, where did this come from, what does it mean?”
This is the sound of unearthly silence, after a year of blood and violence. These are
the men grey with ash, rollin’ their barrels of useless cash...
Press On, produced by Gomberg, Thompson, Himmelman, and Arthur Himmelman, is set for release in July 2020, with details to be announced shortly.
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We asked renowned rock journalist Wayne Robins to contribute his unique take on “This Is How It Ends”in the form of old-school liner notes. Here’s what Wayne has to say.
Ah, you thought there’d be something more / A great upheaval or a world war
This is how it starts: A little drum roll signaling a march, a fitful fist-squeeze of an organ, some purposeful piano notes that you can’t quite hear yet, but which you will soon hear as the core of the song. It’s as if Oscar Peterson rose again, dead since 2007. Tim Riley recently introduced me to an album which O.P. plays both piano and organ on a scintillating session with Roy Eldridge from 1974, and it’s been heavy on my playlist when I need to remember how much fun musicians used to have before the Coronavirus, Covid-19, the Invisible Killer, drew its invisible curtain down on most of life as we had known it.
The other night in one of his Thursday night Facebook concerts, “Songs and Stories from West 89th,” Peter Himmelman had a few choice words about the current situation. Peter moved last year from longtime home Santa Monica, where visitors always had to be cautious not to step on the turtle that freely wandered the yard. An unleashed turtle. Really, Peter! Doesn’t Santa Monica have ordinances about that? The whole family is now on New York’s Upper West Side — a neighborhood so Jewish that even gentiles go to shul on the High Holidays, a neighborhood for both observant Jews and Jews who just observe each other. In the video concert, Peter said, “It’s just like the apocalypse. It feels foreboding as hell to just walk outside.” But there is one distinction between the “situation” and true apocalypse: We are still able to find raspberries, delicious succulent raspberries, that he had eaten that afternoon. “It’s important to pick out good things,” he said.
But it’s hard, especially for a musician responding to circumstances. All of the solo concerts from home, the benefit concerts, the self-supporting concerts with virtual tip jars: They’re so full of uplift and hope, or at least, temporary visual and audio companionship to get us through these suffering days and sleepless nights. I’m pretty sure if Peter was writing new songs now, he’d be writing about the blessings of raspberries, stuffed under the slight give of the facemask. Wearing a yarmulke, or the fedora worn by many of his Orthodox faith and, facemask, you could feel almost safe: show the faith, wear the mask, accept the grace.
But Peter Himmelman, who has spent the last 40 years writing and performing songs that even at their darkest saw the light at the beginning of the tunnel, emerged prepared with a different kind of song, written and recorded in 2019 or early 2020, when we had to cancel a lunch meeting because one of us had a cold, just a bad cold, before it was reasonable to suspect that it could be something terribly worse. At midnight of December 31, 2019, many of us raised our glasses and said, “good riddance to all that! This year 2020 can’t possibly be as bad.” We did not get that quite right. We had no idea, no clue. But Peter must have sensed something, tuning into the zeitgeist as naturally as he dons his tefillin to pray each morning.
“This Is How It Ends” is a beautiful and terrifying song. He has written many lamentations, but few jeremiads, warnings of the Prophet Jeremiah that anticipated destruction of the Temple in concordance with the ebbing faith and increasing sin of his people. That has not been Peter’s message. Even the darkest Peter Himmelman song might come down like a plague of hail, but inside the hailstones are flames, according to our understanding of the 10 plagues that G-d through Moses brought upon Egypt. Peter is drawn to the light.
So we have to search for the light in “This Is How It Ends,” which when it was written was simply a vision of what was already a pretty dire time. The year 2019 was for many a pretty difficult year, what with California wildfires, Australia with fire out of control, assassinations of Jews at prayer in the United States, climate change and income inequality marching us towards a future that made us worry about the world of our children. But the calendar has speeded up, and the darkness is descending on us and friends, our children and grandchildren, our parents and grandparents.
“This Is How It Ends” is not a happy hallucination, like R.E.M.’s “It’s the End of the World as We Know It (And I Feel Fine).” It’s not Skeeter Davis singing “Don’t they know, it’s the end of the world,” a little dramatic perhaps: “It ended when I lost your love.” It’s definitely not “The End,” the Doors’ monolithic façade built as a stoned monument to the end of the 1960s and the continuation of the war in Vietnam, which lasted about 16 years and took more than 58,000 American lives. A staggering body count! Coronavirus passed that in three months: we’re at 62,000 in the United States and counting.
This is not a love song. This is not a drill.
This is the sound of unearthly silence / After a year of blood and violence
The news is full of supply chains breaking down: The cost of oil below zero dollars a gallon, because there’s no place to sell it and it costs more to store it and ship it. Meat distributors becoming hotspots of the pandemic, and farmers unable to get their crops to market.
This is the smell of summer rain / Beyond the fields of rotting grain
How did he know that? How did Peter see “the bubble’s popped, we dove first, we belly-flopped/Inhaling whatever providence sends,” when the stock market was at an all-time high, unemployment was at an all-time low. Many of us are having the peculiar experience of losing track of time because we have so few appointments: Everything’s canceled, so many working from home; or napping during the day and staying up the night, not knowing Wednesday from Thursday, Sunday from Monday. The first chorus begins:
The clocks have frozen on a night so cold / The sun has dropped the jokes growing old
“This Is How It Ends” is not a sad song. Well, it is a sad song, obviously. (Insert John Oliver voice there.) Peter has done a bunch of sad songs, I’m sure, but off the top of my head, they don’t register as “sad.” They occur to me as true songs. There is something always reassuring about the timbre of his voice, a truthfulness, and a musical beauty that won’t let go.
The tempo moves briskly. A spiritual cavalry riding to the rescue? That’s a stretch, but Peter is not the unkempt gentleman in Hyde Park corner, or the clean-cut preacher in Times Square shouting, “we’re doomed.” His faith is too strong. The hook is a series of piano notes that repeat throughout the song. A short, quick ostinato figure in C major, as Peter describes it, or a “doot-doot-oot,” as I describe it. It counterpoints the lyrics with a toot, or a doot, of delight. The song is musically the sturdiest of all of Himmelsongs of the last 40 years, which is really saying something: It pops, it rocks, it swings, and you can’t get it out of your head if you hear it once. I play it once, and I hear it all day, “inhaling whatever providence sends.” This is how it ends.
—Wayne Robins, May 1, 2020