We have featured nearly all of our Record Store Day performers here since the beginning of the month, and we’re getting pretty close to the big day. Yes, everyone here at the record shop is a little worried about the weather – But you know what, there’s nothing we can do about it. Nothing will be canceled, and we’re all Minnesotans so if its chilly or God forbid snowy, not a one of us can complain about it. Its not like the weather hasn’t sucked before.
Today’s post is about Ben Weaver, usually described as a singer-songwriter, but kind of hard to pin down. He”s released about a half a dozen discs and I’m pretty sure he’s younger than I am, packing a more interesting body of work into a decade than most artists manage in a lifetime. Last fall he released his second album with Chicago’s Bloodshot Records, Mirepoix and Smoke, and played an album release set here at Hymie’s. It was his first record issued on vinyl.
So, historically I’ve used this forum to assert an unconventional perspective on pop music, lauding Superchunk’s largely ignored reunion last year, and, more notoriously, suggesting that Chicago outrocks Boston, and so its difficult to take seriously a lot of what I write. True, but a lot of it is also safely status quo. For instance, its easy to make the claim that London Calling is a great record if only because a lot of people have already said so. “Great” is a meaningless word, particularly in consideration of some of the “Greatest Hits” LPs shuffling around out there – Mungo Jerry has a goddamn “Greatest Hits” album, after all. Schubert’s “Great Symphony” (his ninth) is only called such to differentiate it from his sixth, also in C major – It is, ironically, his “Unfinished Symphony” that is a truly great work of art.
I believe Mirepoix and Smoke is a great album, in fact the greatest local release of 2010 and one of the year’s best altogether. There are a few people who would agree with me, but everyone under about 30 for whom I have played this album offers a vague comparison to Leonard Cohen and dismisses it as gloomy. I guess ten or more years ago I may have said the same thing, that being the last time I made it through a side of Songs of Leonard Cohen without changing the record.
Mirepoix and Smoke is lyrically dense and musically sparse. In fact, one of the most rewarding things about this record is Ben’s work on the banjo, which is deceptively plain, earnestly expressive and paced perfectly to the pieces on which it appears. “City Girl” finds his banjo anxious but driving, while the next track, “Drag the Hills”, captures the same spookiness as on Charlie Parr’s best early records. But its not the sound of this record that make it inaccessible to twenty-something rockers, its the songs themselves.
The age of the average record buyer may have held fast to the mid-twenties, but the age of the average adult has trended upward. Childhood, for all intents and purposes, seems to now last well into the second decade, and the heavy themes of separation and divorce, aging and loss are, well, lost. Mirepoix and Smoke ought to have rounded out last winter’s post titled “Soundtrack to your Divorce”, and “While I’m Gone” might fairly rank with Paul Simon’s “Run that Body Down” as one of the best songs ever written by somebody starting to see their middle years on the horizon. All of these intimate subjects are handled from a tasteful distance, whether through the ambiguous narrative of the first track, “Grass Doe” (Third-person, first-person?) or the album’s vague but defining recurring themes (Falling asleep, trees).
The only other thing I’d like to say about the Leonard Cohen comparisons is that Ben is a fine singer. Nobody’s going to say the same thing about Leonard Cohen’s croaking. “Maiden Cliff” is a long ways from the southern drawl on the earliest Ben Weaver album I’ve ever heard (2002’s Stories Under Nails). His performance is what make this track, and several others on Mirepoix and Smoke, weirdly catchy. Laura sings “Hey little bird, hey little dog” when she’s doing things around the house, and I find “East Jefferson” to be a compelling little vignette along the lines of Tom Waits songs like “Can’t Wait to Get off Work” or the instrumental “Closing Time”.
When a promo copy of this album turned up in the mail at Hymie’s I didn’t play it for days. I remember buying his Bloodshot debut, The Ax in the Oak, sometime after its 2008 release on a friend’s recommendation and not enjoying it. Its clumsy electronic sound reminded me of the unsuccessful Mark Eitzel albums that came out all too frequently after American Music Club broke up (The first time). Mirepoix and Smoke is, fortunately, a return to form. Ben almost sounds weary throughout the album, but there’s a sincerity to it that could only come from genuine humility. Who the hell else would sing “I had to punch a new hole in my belt” on a record?
One thing that I have never really written about in this blog is that I lost a brother in a terrible accident. He was younger than I am now when he died. A lot of my thoughts revolve around the life he had in the spring as the anniversary of his death passes by. He was a widower already at thirty, and cursed with bad luck where I have always been very fortunate. I cannot imagine I would be writing this now, or living the life I am living, without him. He was the person who taught me how to play a record. He was there for me in the most difficult times of my life, and I have no idea how difficult his own life was. Father Henderson gave a homily when we were young that I have never forgotten – He said, “You have no idea the kind of pain the person sitting next to you has been in”.
I guess this is the kind of thing you have to think about as you get older, and I suppose you don’t have a choice about it. There’s all kinds of people out there living lives of “quiet desperation”, as Thoreau so famously honed it down. The people you see around and about work like hell. You know, Homer Simpson said something this week that was pretty funny – He was being chased by a group of magicians and shouted as he ran, “The real magic is raising three kids in this economy!”
A little further into the first chapter of Walden Thoreau also wrote:
Most men, even in this comparatively free country, through mere ignorance and mistake, are so occupied with the factitious cares and superfluously coarse labors of life that its finer fruits cannot be plucked by them.*
And that’s where I tie it back to Mirepoix and Smoke. The things that Ben captures in this album are the “life [that] happens when you’re making other plans”, as described by John Lennon. There are so many tiny details in the lyrics to this album. A line in “When I’m Gone” manages to make the sound of a dog’s nails on a hardwood floor sound poetic. Another in “Split Ends” is about raccoons coming up from the river to eat rotten apples in the yard. There’s a lot of art in the day-to-day life, whether its hard work or overcoming a loss. Its not the stuff of great poetry, but I can identify with this record. I’m guess I’m also glad we don’t have an apple tree, since we’re not that far from the river either.
*Of course, Thoreau also wrote that “trade curses everything it handles” in the same chapter, dooming not me, the merchant, but apparently each and every record that passes through the shop. Sorry about that.
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