When last we left Peter Himmelman, he was leaving (or being pushed out of) the major-label world, and heading for indier pastures. Far from signaling an end to his career — or even a real slowdown in his hectic release schedule — this move seemed instead to provoke a flood of new Himmelman music.
The five albums we’ll cover in Part Two of our Himmelman Guide may not seem like a whole lot, but they’re really just the tip of the iceberg. For reasons of space and time, we won’t be covering two children’s albums (My Fabulous Plum and My Lemonade Stand), four odds & sods collections (From the Himmelvaults, volumes 1-4), or any of the Emmy-nominated incidental music he’s written for television. Not to mention any of the other cool stuff to be found at his official site.
Clearly, the man has been gifted with an impressive work ethic. But how does the work itself hold up? Let’s go find out.
Stage Diving (1996)
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Himmelman dealt with his new free-agent status the same way a lot of other artists do; namely, he released a stopgap live album.
I have never been to a Peter Himmelman concert, but by most accounts, they’re not to be missed — he’s known for doing anything and everything to make sure his guests get their money’s worth, from doing impromptu second sets on the sidewalk outside the venue, to inviting patrons out to a post-concert, after-midnight lakeside show, to making up songs on the spot by request. To the extent that this can be said about an artist few people know of, Himmelman’s live act has acquired something approaching legendary status.
Does this come across in Stage Diving? Eh, not really. It’s a good live record, sure, but it draws mainly from Himmelman’s Epic releases, which benefited from fairly “live” production in the first place; the thrill of hearing a great song liberated from a weak studio recording is part of what makes a live album essential, and that doesn’t enter into the equation here. Moreover, there’s only so much of the live experience’s magic that can translate to an audio recording; a lot of it often rests on the interplay between band members, and again, that doesn’t really enter into the equation here.
That being said, up until the release of Himmelman’s recent best-of, Stage Diving stood as the only thing resembling a career-spanning overview for the artist, and these are all fine recordings in their own right. His stage banter is mercifully brief and generally witty, he’s got a gift for feeling the temperature of an audience, and — on “Closer” (download) — he even throws in some passable freestyle rap. Not to mention that this version of “Been Set Free” (download) might even surpass the original.
My Best Friend Is a Salamander (1997)
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Given the overall seriousness of his body of work, a person could be forgiven for regarding the idea of a Peter Himmelman children’s album with a certain degree of skepticism. Certainly, few who had only listened to his studio albums could have foreseen the degree of silliness Himmelman would display on My Best Friend Is a Salamander — or guessed it would lead to a critically well-received parallel career.
We won’t cover the sequels here, but if you listen to Salamander, you get the idea. There’s wonderful, life-affirming stuff the whole family can enjoy, like “You’ll Always Be You to Me” (download), and goofy kid’s stuff like “Larry’s A Sunflower Now” (download). In short, it beats the hell out of sentimental treacle like those Kenny Loggins Pooh Corner records.
Love Thinketh No Evil (1999)
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Himmelman emerged from the longest between-album layoff of his career with Love Thinketh No Evil, a more rock-oriented, sonically adventurous collection than he’d ever attempted. He was rewarded with commercial indifference equally as resounding as any that had greeted his other releases, which is weirdly fitting; it’s just as good as its predecessors, and maybe even better.
The album kicks off with the noisy, vaguely industrial-ish “Eyeball” (download), but for the most part, Thinketh’s experimentalism is a matter of slight degrees. Songs like “Checkmate” (download) and “Forgiveness Shining” (download) wouldn’t have sounded out of place on any other Himmelman album — which is to say, they come from deep places, they’re written with a sharp, empathic eye, and more often than not, they hit the listener right where it counts.
What sets Thinketh apart from other Himmelman albums is the production, which is — comparatively speaking, anyway — fairly dense; certainly, it’s busier than anything he’d recorded since Synesthesia. Where that album was victimized by ’80s overkill, however, Love Thinketh No Evil benefits from the added noise. Guests include Chris Vrenna, Mike Elizondo, Lee Thornberg, and Corey Sipper (whatever happened to her, anyway?)
All of this was no doubt helped along by the fact that Himmelman had signed with Six Degrees Records; had he stayed there, it’s tempting to wonder what a healthy production budget and smart A&R might have done for his future releases. As it turned out, unfortunately, Thinketh was his sole effort for the label.
Unstoppable Forces (2004)
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For many artists, there comes a point when things like fancy packaging and intricate production need to fall by the wayside in the interest of simply keeping things going. For Peter Himmelman, this point is marked by Unstoppable Forces, a collection of songs as stripped down as its predecessor’s were built up. From the looks-like-it-was-taken-with-a-cameraphone cover photo to the bare-bones arrangements and production, Unstoppable is strictly a no-frills affair.
To some fans, the album was a bit of a letdown; while only Skin was a true concept album, each of his previous releases can be viewed as following a certain theme, be it sonic or lyrical. In contrast, Unstoppable is, for better or worse, really just a collection of songs. There’s certainly nothing wrong with that, but particularly after a five-year wait, it’s understandable that some listeners would be disappointed.
The songs themselves are predictably well-written, passionately performed, and focused on matters of the soul. Leadoff track “The Deepest Part” (download) sums up, in under three minutes, Himmelman as a songwriter; “The Scent of Autumn Burning” (download) takes a little longer, but does the same.
I suppose what it boils down to is that a guy in Himmelman’s career marker is, regardless of sales, most likely finished with making grand, career-defining statements. They’ve dug their grooves (or trenches, as the case may be), and subsequent releases are more about mining their richer depths than about exploring new vistas. Hence, an album like Unstoppable Forces: a little of this, a little of that, and at the end of the day — even if it doesn’t shatter the pillars of heaven — not a bad addition to the catalog.
Imperfect World (2005)
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Being that they were released only a year apart, there’s a certain degree of similarity between Imperfect World and Unstoppable Forces: two-word titles; somewhat painful packaging design; basic production. To put things in perspective, they’re as closely related as any two back-to-back Himmelman releases since Gematria and Synesthesia.
That being said, Synesthesia wasn’t a sequel to Gematria, and neither is Imperfect World really Unstoppable Forces II.
Imperfect is a little punchier and rawer than its predecessor, for one thing; it was recorded with a band that included Pete Thomas on drums, so there’s no small amount of muscle to the rhythm tracks, and Himmelman — who handles all the guitars — has never played with more intensity. It’s a good deal darker, for another. The title track (download), in particular, was inspired by the unexpected death of Himmelman’s sister, and other songs, like “Kneel Down” (download), raise the stakes on the endless spiritual struggle that has taken place in his solo work since the first note of This Father’s Day.
Like Unstoppable Forces, this set of songs acts as a deepening and a refinement of what Himmelman has said and done before — as good an indication as any that fans can safely expect his work to continue to improve with age. He was an old soul in a young man’s body when he cut his first solo album twenty years ago; now, with experiences to match his insight, he has a truly special gift to offer the patient listener.