Clip: The Working Poor
The Working Poor
Writer: DAN ELDRIDGE
Photographer: HEATHER MULL
It's definitely Alan Lewandowski's voice that pulls your ear straight to
the speaker -- sort of like a heavy magnet is drawn to metal -- when the
first few bars of The Working Poor's third release, New Wealth, pop and
sputter into life. The record starts with the sound of a train whistle,
actually; stand-up-bass player Brian Richmond got the idea when a train
blew past a friend's South Oakland apartment just after he'd hit "play" on
an early test pressing. And it's fitting, too, because just like that very
first track, and like the Working Poor themselves -- who spend their days
as painters, filmmakers and laborers when they aren't making music -- New
Wealth is a quirky, triumphant example of what the Velvet Underground liked
to call "urban folk music."
But back to Lewandowski: Imagine a soft-spoken vocalist with a timeless
Hank Williams twang and a folksy, subtle sense of innocence, and you'll
start to get the idea. The other four band members seem to naturally wrap
their instruments and their voices around his at every turn, especially on
instant Americana classics like "Upstart Organ" and "Figurine," where
vocalist and sometime-guitarist Lee Smookler's resonant bass lyrics spar
with Lewandowski's high notes in a sort of contest -- perfectly matched --
where a lazy 4/4 beat and Richmond's rumbling acoustic bass round out the
But probably the most impressive attribute of New Wealth is that according
to Lewandowski, the record's pastoral-Americana sound was really nothing
more than an experiment. "We've had a lot of phases," he explained during a
recent interview at a Lawrenceville bar. "When we first started out, it was
a three-piece. We had a drummer, [current Johnsons Big Band vocalist] Terry
Carroll, and Brian [Richmond] played the bass. It was very sparse. More of
a minimalist style."
And although no one in the group can seem to agree on exactly what the
band's sound is -- Lewandowski says it's New Urban American, Smookler
disagrees, and then Lewandowski counters that the idea, after all, was just
to start a good punk band -- they all agree on their influences.
"Definitely the Carter Family," someone says. They also mention the
Handsome Family (no surprise there), and a random assemblage of '30s music.
But the Working Poor's most unique element is definitely its inimitable
live show, which falls somewhere between that of a European busking band
and a random group of friends who just happened to meet together on a
street corner to sing a couple of songs. That's not surprising, perhaps,
when you consider the group's history: Richmond (who, by the way, is a
nationally renowned experimental filmmaker) once played with the Feral
Family, who were known to frequently set up shop on Shadyside street
corners. And Lewandowski and Smookler even tried their luck as sidewalk
singers during a vacation in New Orleans. "Actually, I'm going to Barcelona
in two weeks," Lewandowski says, "and I hope to pay for my trip [by
busking]. Or my dinners. I'm going to play Hank Williams and Leadbelly, and
see if they go for that."
If they do, they won't be the first. The Working Poor have had a small but
intense following in Pittsburgh for going on five years now, thanks in no
small part to the Rickety Records collective they've been a part of from
the beginning. "We just like to play," says Lewandowski, before finishing
his drink and heading back home for band practice. "It's our drug of
choice, and Pittsburgh's a great place to perform, and this is where our
friends are. That's why we're here."
The Working Poor play a CD-release party with guests The Johnsons Big Band
at 10 p.m. Sat., Jan. 31, at Gooski's, Polish Hill. 412-681-1658.