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Spotlight on: Einstein's Brain by Nathan Caswell

Cover of Einstein's Brain by Nathan Caswell Nathan Caswell, Einstein's Brain

I would never have thought that even one person would have been inspired to write a song based on Michael Paterniti's book Driving Mr. Albert: A Trip Across America with Einstein's Brain, let alone two. The first one I became aware of, Lynn Harrison's "Einstein's Brain," appeared on the Artists for Literacy compilation Songs Inspired by Literature: Volume One. The second was the title track from Canadian singer-songwriter Nathan Caswell's debut release Einstein's Brain, described by the artist as "a collection of 6 songs of adventure, science, and love."

Where Harrison's song is simply cute (and soon wears out its welcome), Caswell's is clever: a novelty song with a heart that proves even a brain can be sentimental. It covers many details of their travels towards Las Vegas. Einstein's brain, it seems "has a system" to win at roulette, to which Caswell agrees because "compared to quantum physics, roulette should be a cinch." Along the way, Einstein's brain falls in love with a waitress because of her laugh, learns to accessorize, and discourses on the fate of amputees who often continue to feel pain in their missing limbs. "Try to imagine what I'm going through here," he says, "in this jar."

Einstein's Brain combines novelty with earnest introspection, often in the same song. Even the love song "Missing You" contains lines like "I've been missing you in shades of blue and green" and "Pistons sing in the key of C / Tires hum the harmony." The highlight of the album is "Pierre Trudeau (I Have the Technology)" where Caswell offers to clone famous public figures and improve their greatest aspects. He hopes to take the title subject, "raise him well" and eventually have a leader "who stands for more than himself." (I'll not mention where he plans to obtain their DNA, but it goes right to the source.) My favorites are Andy Griffith -- whose Matlock skills would set Leonard Peltier free -- and Jesus Christ:

I'm gonna raise him well, build kitchen cabinets,
Make sure he knows that he's King of the Jews,
Get him a lucrative Nike sponsorship,
In fifty years have a Savior who's ...
... already been dead for fifteen years.
Caswell alternates the primarily novel songs with the mostly heartfelt ones, and "Time Flies" was earnestly felt from the presence of low strings accompanying simple guitar and vocals, and lyrics like the chorus: "Time flies when you're having fun, time flies when you're not / Time flies up until the day you've used up all the time you've got." After a downer like that, it's nice to get to "Not a Song" wherein Richard Dean Anderson's career since MacGuyver is lamented (guess Caswell is not a Stargate SG-1 fan). More statements are made that would seem to be important, until the listener is let in on a little secret:
This is not a song for the radio station
Write one, if I could, but I don't know how
This is not a song for my generation
This is just the song I'm singing right now.
The last full song, "This Town," is a lament of small-town life, something I can relate to, having grown up in a town with one phone prefix and little-to-no culture. It's really a tribute to a lost love and the apparent vacuum that leaves behind. "The only thing worth anything in this town was you." But not satisfied to leave his listener with a feeling of nostalgia, Caswell presents the final "half" track, a 35-second "open letter to the guy who sat in the seat behind me and ate hard candy from a crackling cellophane bag for the duration of the first act of that fancy Broadway show . . ." and so on.

Einstein's Brain is an example of a successful EP-as-marketing-tool. There is enough material to be representative of Nathan Caswell's musical output, but not so much that the listener tires of the alternating of funny and serious that seems to showcase the two varying sides of his personality. That makes it easy to decide whether to hit play again or to leave it for the moment. Personally, I don't hesitate.

This review originally appeared in somewhat different form on The Green Man Review. Copyright 2004. Reprinted with permission.

Nathan Caswell: Einstein's BrainNathan Caswell: Einstein's Brain

Quirky modern folk, characterized by a playful intelligence and a strong sense of irony. Imagine a cross between Dan Bern and Loudon Wainwright III, with a Canadian comic sensibility.

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