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Published: 2001/06/19
by Ray Hogan

New Train- Paul Pena

New Train – Paul Pena

Hybrid Recordings 20019

If "New Train" was released 27 years ago as initially planned, things would
likely be a lot different for Paul Pena, then a soulful singer-songwriter of
commanding presence. At least some fans of the Steve Miller Band's 1977
version of Jet Airliner would be familiar with Pena's original version, for
starters. But more importantly "New Train" would likely have a contender for one of most
celebrated albums of 1973.

But that didn't happen. Instead the disc and Pena were lost in major label
shuffling. Pena faded from the music scene to tend to his ailing wife and
returned to music in the 1990s as a student and performer of Tuvan throat
singing (which is the subject of the documentary "Genghis Blues"). In a
unfair twist of fate, Pena is in poor health as a result of pancreatitis, an
inflammation of the pancreas.

It's hard to imagine "New Train" not being a hit record if it were released
in the early the 1970s. Pena, blind since birth, seemingly absorbed the best
aspects of the rock boom of the decade before and incorporated them into a
singular vision.

Pena is a soulful folkie who's not afraid to groove to blues shuffles,
psychedelic inquiries, country-rock or anthem-like sing-alongs. Vocally, he often sounds
like the template Lenny Kravitz lifted his retro-style
from. But unlike Kravitz, Pena never goes over the top with his vocal
affectations. As a guitarist, he puts rhythm before flash which allows his
band – which includes journeyman bassist Harvey Brooks – to provide a bottom
heavy base to complement his fleet-fingered style.

Equally suited as a songwriter as he is a singer – a rarity in that genre – his songs are largely top-notch. Gonna Move, which opens the disc and features the Persuasions harmonizing like only they can, sets the tone for "New Train": bouncy, playful and easy to toe-tap and hum to and a fine introduction to Pena's sandy soul-tinged vocals. Jet Airliner is exponentially grittier and more legit than the Miller version that continues to saturate classic rock airwaves.

Lyrically, Pena was firmly planted in the era, alternating between joyful
celebration and societal concern. Occasionally his influences become too close for comfort: Cosmic
Mirror not only has like a Hendrix-like title but sounds like it was lifted from his
songbook and Venutian Lady – which features Jerry Garcia and Merl
Saunders in one of two guest appearances – is basically a reworked Bertha.
Those are small complaints considering the strengths of this lost classic.
It's sickening to think that an album such as "New Train" was shelved and bands
like Bread and America went on to lead a folk-rock boom shortly after.

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