PETER KLEINHANS – Album Review: “I Was Alive Enough”

Peter Kleinhans is a New York-based singer-songwriter who, after spending 30 years as a professional harness horse racer, trainer and announcer, decided to turn his love of music into writing and recording songs. His music is a pleasing mix of pop, folk and rock, but it’s his skill for telling engrossing stories through thoughtful, intelligent lyrics that makes his songs so compelling in a Harry Chapin kind of way. He doesn’t have a particularly strong singing voice – his vocal style is more of a talk-singing – but it’s warm and comforting, and perfect for storytelling.

In February 2018 he released his debut album Something’s Not Right to critical acclaim. LA Music Critic hailed it “one of the best debut albums we have reviewed“, while Neufutur Magazine called it “an album that blends together Dave Matthews with the protest tradition of performers like Neil Young and Phil Ochs.” He later released, in November 2019, an excellent video for album’s title track “Something’s Not Right”, a song about the sense of uncertainty and unease that many Americans seemed to be feeling about their country and their own future, while still trying to remain optimistic and grateful for what’s good. You can read my feature about the song and video here.

In December (2020), Peter returned with his second album I Was Alive Enough, featuring 12 tracks he states are “very specific to this very strange moment we are all living in, with songs about our fear of missing out (“FOMO”) and greed (“Race to the Bottom”), as well as mistrust of the media (“Fake News”). But it’s also hopeful and spirited, about appreciation for NYC graffiti (“91st Street”), a love of horse-racing (“W1775”) and the power and joy of solitude (“Table for One”). What binds many of the tracks together for me is the significance of each song’s characters despite their powerlessness. The befuddled news-watcher in “Fake News” is as real as the story of the horse W1775, the farmer in “Malagasy Uprising”, the homeless man in “Homeless” as much as the hapless narrator walking past, or even the corporate stooges in “Race To The Bottom”, who have more actual power and influence but who are ultimately prisoners of the soulless world they inhabit. One of the main things I was driving at in this album was the significance of every life.

The 12 songs run the stylistic gamut from gentle folk ballads and bouncy pop to pleasing Southern rock and world music. Peter’s lyrics are so good that I’ll be quoting a lot of them, so bear with me as you read on. The album kicks off with “FOMO“, a breezy pop tune highlighted by some nice jazzy piano keys, along with gnarly guitars and jaunty organ that contrast with the matter-of-fact lyrics addressing his, and everyone else’s, shortcomings and how there must be a pill to deal with all our myriad anxieties: “I’m looking for a doctor just to tell me I’m crazy. My girl says I’m older, vain, stupid and lazy. But no one says what everyone knows to be true, that I’m totally crazy and so are you. / Yes, keep me medicated, keep those bottles full. Cause I’ve got FOMO, can’t handle missing out. You know I’m all about regret and doubt.

Race to the Bottom” has a heavier pop-rock treatment, with rousing, multi-layered guitars, thumping drums and tasty psychedelia-tinged organ, all set to a strong foot-stomping beat. Peter sings the cynical lyrics spoken from the perspective of corporations hoping to cash in on a brain-dead public: “We got a fractured nation, a distracted population. Got to take advantage just the best that we can. But we better hurry ‘fore they get their pitchforks in motion, cause they’re getting pretty tired of being taken by the man. So, come with me on a race to the bottom, where the pickins are easy and there’s plenty of prey.

Continuing on a similar theme, he addresses how we all seek out the kind of news that feeds our own world views on “Fake News“: “So go ahead and play me some fake news, and I’ll just change the channel if want to change my views“, and how some want nothing to do with those holding opinions different from theirs: “Woke up to find someone’s unfriended me today. Doesn’t like the way I see the world. It could be we never were such good friends anyway, but I’m still stinging from the epithets he hurled.” The song starts off as a gentle piano ballad, then expands into a lively melody with guitars, bold percussion and what sounds like clarinet, which adds a nice but slightly unsettling vibe. The song has a bit of a Harry Chapin feel, and is one of my favorites on the album.

91st St.” is a wonderful ode to the graffiti-covered and abandoned 91st Street subway station in New York City. The station was deemed superfluous by the subway authority and closed in 1954, and later came to be known by New Yorkers as the “Ghost Station”. Peter wrote a marvelous article about the station and the song in October 2018, which I featured on this blog and can be read here. The song has a progressive/jazzy vibe, with a cool drumbeat, funky bass line and fuzzy guitar riff. Toward the end of the track, Peter injects a quirky little psychedelic synth that makes for a great finish.

Peter addresses the oft-covered and eternally relatable subjects of love and relationships on a few tracks, with lyrics that are painfully honest and real. On the bittersweet Americana-tinged “Our Journeys“, he sings of how he let his partner down, but is thankful for the good things they enjoyed together: “Now this song isn’t one of mistake or regret. I chose what I chose, and I’ll take what I’ll get, but when push comes to shove, it still hurts to hurt someone you love. And you were willing to spend your whole journey on me, and the value of that, maybe I just wouldn’t see. So please let me take the time to thank you now.” On the lovely “Table For One“, he sings his praises of being alone: “All I watched as a child, replayed the same scene. Go find a fair princess, make her a fair queen. But repeating the playbook has cost me a lot. Maybe you find who you are when you find who you’re not.” And on “Palpitations“, he sings of traveling the country with his new bride, not caring where they end up so long as he’s with her: “These palpitations inspired by you are invented by me. Palpitations are my body’s way of telling me I’m finally free.”

Homeless” is a poignant song about how those of us living in big cities co-exist with homeless people as we go about our days, intersecting with each other, yet living in completely separate worlds and fearful of becoming too involved: “There a man I see almost every day. He’s got a black dog with a collar. It used to be ‘could you spare a dime’ now it’s ‘could you spare a dollar?’ Sometimes I give, sometimes I don’t, depends what’s in my pocket. But he’s a man locked inside an invisible cage, and my dollar won’t unlock it. There’s no future, there’s no joy. He once was an adorable boy. Once he started to fall, he found no safe place to land. Walk right by that ghost of a man. It’s the crime I commit almost everyday. It’s the violence of looking away.” 

On “Malagasy Uprising“, Peter sings from the perspective of a farmer recalling the horrors of the nationalist rebellion against French colonial rule in Madagascar that lasted from March 1947 to February 1949, and now trying to eke out a living in peace. He uses African elements and instruments, along with a lilting chorus by female singers, to give the song an exotic flavor that works quite well. He channels a bit of Tom Petty on  “Beneath Two Moons“, a song that speaks to the love of personal freedom over romantic entanglements. And he sings of being with the one he loves in of the Land of Enchantment on the appropriately enchanting “New Mexico“, “where the people think we’re pretty, and there’s turquoise everywhere.”

One of his best ‘story’ songs is “W1775“, a poignant saga about a horse who started his career as an award-winning race horse, then spent time pulling a carriage in New York, and eventually living out his final years in a pasture. Peter elaborates on the song’s inspiration: “I trained racehorses for many years and I earned a deep respect for the animals. One of the things about horse racing that you just don’t find when following other animals, is the story within every horse’s career, all of which is documented and is occasionally remembered but more often forgotten.”

I Was Alive Enough is a delightful album, not only because it’s a pleasing listen, but also due to its great storytelling. As I alluded to at the beginning of this review, Peter is a masterful lyricist and storyteller, not to mention a fine musician. Each song is a gem, with no two sounding alike, keeping the album sounding fresh and surprising from start to finish. 

Connect with Peter on Facebook /  Twitter  / Instagram
Stream his music:  Spotify / Soundcloud / Apple Music
Purchase:  iTunes / Amazon

PETER KLEINHANS Releases New Video for “Something’s Not Right”

Something's Not Right cover

Peter Kleinhans is a New York-based singer-songwriter who, after spending 30 years as a professional harness horse racer and announcer, decided to turn his love of music into writing and recording songs. His music is a pleasing mix of pop, folk and rock, with thoughtful lyrics and catchy melodies. He doesn’t have a particularly strong singing voice, but his distinctive vocals are warm and comforting. In February 2018 he released his debut album Something’s Not Right to critical acclaim. LA Music Critic hailed it “one of the best debut albums we have reviewed“, while Neufutur Magazine called it “an album that blends together Dave Matthews with the protest tradition of performers like Neil Young and Phil Ochs.”

Last October, Peter wrote a fascinating guest article for this blog about his song “91st Street”, which you can read here. Now I’m happy to feature him again for the release of his brilliant and compelling new video for the title track from his album “Something’s Not Right“. The song speaks to the general sense of uncertainty and unease that many Americans seem to be feeling about their country and their own future, while still trying to remain optimistic and grateful for what’s good. His video, produced by Peter and directed by filmmaker Harrison Kraft, brings his powerful lyrics to life with an entertaining, yet at times troubling, narrative. Peter explains his inspiration behind the song, as well as the making of the video.

“Something’s Not Right” was one of my first songs, and ended up being the title of my first album. I wrote it in 2013, and it reflected the sense of unease I was getting from many of the previously-comfortable friends I had made during my years of announcing horse races in Indiana, Michigan, Kentucky, and Pennsylvania. I’d taken the couple of years beforehand trying to understand the forces underlying the economy, and became convinced that although the economy was officially ‘in recovery,’ things were not improving for average Americans. This was confirmed for me by the universal sense I was receiving from everyone I knew that there was a deep unease and lack of security brewing from a thinning sense of stability and sustainability.

This song was written three years before the election — it’s not a political song. What interested me was that feeling of unease, the sense of something-not-being-right, and how it emanated not just from economic forces but also from the impersonal face of what the nation was presenting its citizens. The song begins by invoking Applebee’s and Lowe’s as the workplaces of the protagonist, and ends with a desperate appeal to Walmart as the only viable destination for the drive he takes (ostensibly to escape the mundanity of his experience) in the middle of the night.

I am very happy and lucky to have connected with Harrison Kraft and his brilliant and young set of filmmakers, who completely got the idea and brought it to life in this music video. They used the conceit of a July 4 celebration — a party that has lost its true feeling of celebration, and even the reason for celebrating — to convey this overall all-consuming sense of disillusion. It was Kraft’s vision to use mannequins to convey characters playing their roles in life but without really ‘being there’. The protagonist’s girlfriend oscillates from real to a simulation and so do many of the background characters. Reality starts to take on a disturbing turn in a number of ways: the hand flipping the burger suddenly turns to plastic, the son’s firecracker goes the opposite way- it’s supposed to be fake, but it becomes a real explosive. These ideas were all in the hands of the video production team; I’d discussed what I thought the central themes of the song were, and then I gave them free rein to take it wherever they wanted to go. They took the ball and ran with it, and I’m thrilled with the result. Sometimes you have to know when to give up control, but you’ve really got to have trust in your team when you’re doing that. I hope you enjoy the result, and be on the lookout for more music videos forthcoming from Harrison Kraft and his team!”

Peter Kleinhans – Something’s Not Right from Harrison Kraft on Vimeo.

Peter is currently finishing up his second album, due for release in early 2020. To learn more about him, check out his website and follow him on Facebook /  Twitter  / Instagram
Stream his music on Spotify / Soundcloud / Apple Music
Purchase on iTunesGoogle Play

Guest Post: ‘The Ghost of Graffiti Past and The Allure of the 91st Street Subway Station’ by Peter Kleinhans

Peter Kleinhans

This is a guest post by Peter Kleinhans, a musician based in New York City who this past February released his debut album Something’s Not Right. After spending 30 years as a professional harness horse racer and announcer, at the age of 50 he decided to turn his love of music into writing and recording songs. He explains a few thoughts about his new-found music career:

“I wish I’d begun writing music at an earlier age, because as a father of two who also drives harness racehorses, bets thoroughbred horses professionally, raises organic beef, chicken, and lamb, and is engaged to be married for the third time, I find that the music often gets squeezed to the sidelines. But I’m happy with what I have had the time to create, and I hope that listeners will find something to enjoy here.

Although I’ve only started with music over the past couple of years, I credit the years of racing horses, often in the Midwest, hanging out with the Runyonesque characters of that business, and sharing their daily travails, for much of what I’ve written. I was born and raised in New York City, left it for twenty years, and am now back. It’s an amazing city, full of amazing people, but New Yorkers are just as often oblivious to the daily existential struggles of a family in Indiana as the other way around. The horses aren’t my full-time business anymore, but I still drive occasionally.”

In his thoughtfully-written article, Peter discusses his inspiration behind a new song he’s recorded called “91st Street,” in which he describes the storied past of the former 91st Street subway station.

The Ghost of Graffiti Past and The Allure of the 91st Street Subway Station

At the time of writing, I have a gig in six weeks, and three unfinished songs to get done for it.  If you’ve ever been in a similar situation, you might be familiar with the fact that it’s easier to write about what you’re working on instead of working on it.  It’s a variation on that disastrous first-line-of-a-poem that goes something like “I sit here, waiting for ideas to enter my failed brain.” But the song I’m currently writing, about the abandoned subway station on 91st street and Broadway, begs for context.  It’s written for those people who know about the history of New York’s subway system and graffiti’s place in it. But I realize that those people are becoming further and further between, so for those who don’t know much about that history, here’s some context, here’s something of what I’m trying to get at.

Kleinhans 91st St Platform
The view of the 91st street platform recalls a different New York.

If you ride the 1 train in New York regularly, there’s a good chance you’ve been riding past an iconic piece of the city’s ever-changing history without ever noticing it.  Between the 86th and 96th street station is what some New Yorkers call the “Ghost Station.”  When the subway was built in 1904, trains were shorter, and stations were built at 86th, 91st, and 96th.  With longer cars entering the scene in the 1950s and no real justification for three stops within such a close proximity, the IRT company, who then ran the 1 train, made the decision to close the station in 1954. The station has remained dormant since.  However, its relatively easy access combined with a healthy dose of  spookiness, intrigue, and mystery, have made it a magnet for subway connoisseurs, especially those with a hankering to remember what New York looked like just a few short decades ago.

In 2002, Henry Chalfant, along with co-conspirators Tony Silver and Martha Cooper, released the twentieth-anniversary edition of Style Wars, regarded by many as the iconic documentary piece on the emergence of hip-hop, most specifically the then-emergent phenomenon of subway graffiti.  The anniversary edition contained a treasure trove of new material, most excitingly a seemingly never-ending montage of Chalfant’s photographs of the city’s most creatively-bombed subway cars.

But 16 years have passed, even since the twentieth anniversary of Style Wars. Nevertheless, a fascination continues with the work and culture from the 70s and 80s, and one of the few places to actually feel a bit of that old texture is the 91st street station. I haven’t had the guts to jump down onto the tracks from 86th street and run along them for five blocks to visit the station, at least not yet. I don’t have a bucket list, but that would be on it.  Although it doesn’t take much to find graffiti, it’s increasingly hard to remember that graffiti and subways used to be inseparable as medium and message.

But the trains are now gone as the artists’ primary canvases, ever since the MTA claimed victory over subway graffiti in 1989. The subways, once seen by some as “masterpiece art galleries” and which tourists had once come New York to witness, were now clean and cool – a huge quality-of-life improvement from the point-of-view of most New Yorkers. For some, nostalgia lingers.  I grew up riding the subway in New York and I miss the graffiti deeply.  The subways may have had a bad last couple of years as far as ‘signal problems,’ but anyone who remembers the subways in the 70s would be quick to point out that they encompassed an entirely other level of dysfunction.  Graffiti grew out of these difficult and dangerous times in a city on fire, and to completely glamorize it as an art, while glossing over its flipside of danger and violence is to sanitize it in a way completely counter to its original intentions.

As a New York Times review of the 20th anniversary edition of “Style Wars” put it back in 2003, Absent the urine-soaked subway platforms and pervasive sense of danger that accompanied the rise of graffiti art in New York in the 70’s and 80’s, viewers can happily sit back in their parlors and decipher the green and brown polka-dotted caterpillar scheme that unites ‘’Seen’ and ‘Doze,’’ or Quik’s inventive letter-ending arrows pointing sideways, outward and upward to a seemingly endless universe of graffiti.

Klenihans Pic 2
Dondi’s legendary “Children of the Grave”, 1980; it ran two days before being painted over.

Kleinhans pic 3
The “white elephant” car used as one of the first in a series of graffiti-control measures that started in New York City under Mayor Ed Koch, circa 1981.

The subway train cars were quite literally whitewashed in the 1980s, marking the beginning of the end of subway graffiti. The closure of 5 Pointz in Queens in 2013 – a graffiti landmark substantial enough to  draw crowds – marked another dramatic victory of the corporate over the merely creative. 5 Pointz is now being developed into a 40-story luxury residential building in Long Island City.

5 Pointz was painted over — with no advance notice to the artists whose work had been displayed there for years — over the course of one night.

Kleinhans pic 4
5 Pointz, in its glory, April, 2013

Kleinhans pic 5
5 Pointz, whitewashed, November, 2013

My inspiration for writing the song “91st Street” was to honor this fading culture.  Although graffiti is everywhere now, the culture has been commodified, made clever, palatable, and digestible like everything else.  You can create a masterpiece on your computer using only your brains and your fingers; once you had to straddle a parked train and decorate it from top to bottom, with paint you had stolen, in the middle of the night, the police or a rival gang around a curve and ready to pounce.  And you knew that even if you succeeded, your work had no permanence — it would be painted over within days.

What makes the 91st street station important is that it’s one of those weird lost-in-time places that, from simple benign neglect, has become a repository for a fertile period in the history of New York art.  Taggers continue to make the short pilgrimage to view and perhaps to tag one spot in the one place in the New York subway system that is more like a shrine to the past here than just about anything else.  After all, cleaning it up wouldn’t make anybody any money, and therein lies its durability. Like a root cellar where one can imagine all manner of unnameable fungi finding a foothold, it maintains its spirit of dankness and chaos in a world that would love to be done with such inconveniences. It holds a special place in my heart and some day I hope to stand on its platform like the anachronism I suppose I am.

“91st Street” has a progressive/jazzy vibe, with a simple but cool drumbeat, funky bass line and fuzzy guitar riff. Toward the end of the track, Peter injects a quirky psychedelic synth that makes for a great finish. You can listen to “91st Street” by clicking the link below:

https://drive.google.com/file/d/0BzMXix1s0HGeZk9meVBoRExwcVN1YU1rcGg2SDlVeEFmWVo0/view?usp=sharing

To learn more about Peter, check out his website and connect with him on Facebook /  Twitter  / Instagram
Stream his music on Spotify / Soundcloud / Apple Music
Purchase on iTunes