21 December 2010

2010 Albums: Ben Weaver, Best Coast

Ben Weaver
Mirepoix and Smoke
Released on October 19, 2010 (Bloodshot)

Short Notes: Airy, subdued fall/winter record from Upper Midwest singer.

This is a lovely, sparse record from St. Paul-based singer-songwriter Ben Weaver, who has apparently been putting out these kinds of folk songs since 2002. It really is just Weaver’s soft, sometimes gravelly tenor, his fingerpicking (guitar and a bit of banjo), and the occasional harmony by Erica Froman, and he does (to these ears) a wonderful job of playing with silence and space to make something of these songs that sounds rather bigger. If you’re not interested in a record with such a limited palette, then this probably isn’t for you. But if you are, you’d be rewarded by a wonderful little set of songs about love and regret (“Drag the Hills” is a real standout) that sounds like woodsy (“Maiden Cliff” speaks at some length about gathering wild mushrooms) version of The Mountain Goats’ Get Lonely. Recommended, especially for Americana fans.

It's more my fault than Ben Weaver's that the first thing I notice about this album is what it's not, especially vis-a-vis similar artists. In particular, whenever the solo-banjo opens a track, I'm reminded of William Elliott Whitmore, but this is more subdued, lacking the same sort of dynamic movement and raw pathos of Whitmore's best work. Mirepoix and Smoke is the sort of album that rewards familiarity by revealing the subtleties of Weaver's Americana storytelling. It's sparse without being desolate: I'm not entirely sure that's a good thing, but it is a rare thing.

Best Coast
Crazy For You
July 27, 2010 (Mexican Summer)

Short Notes: Hook-filled, slightly anti-feminist bedroom pop.

This sounds, for all the world, like Liz Phair’s Exile in Guyville re-written by a girl-group fetishist. It’s got that fuzzy, insular indie pop sensibility that goes back to the old C-60 days, and singer Bethany Cosentino has that same snotty, laid back vocal quality that made Phair’s early work so emotionally cutting--everything was an thrown-off, backhanded insult. But Cosentino’s songs aren’t so much about getting over the guy who fucked her over as they are about getting him back. Sure, she’s angry at him for leaving, but she can’t really get along without him, either:

And nothing makes me happy
Not even TV or a bunch of weed
Everytime you leave this house
Everything falls apart

She’ll promise him she “won’t be such a brat” (“Bratty B”) if he’ll come home, but the real problem, of course, is her own self-deprecating lack of self-esteem. Rather than Phair’s infamous “blow job queen,” Cosentino is sure she can’t really keep her man happy, especially when she measures herself against all the other American Apparel-clad girls on the scene:

The other girl is not like me
She's prettier and skinnier
She has a college degree
I dropped out when I was seventeen
If only I could get her out of the picture
Then he would know how much I want him

I love this as a pop record. It’s all jangly fuzz and chorus, with a timelessness to its approach to pop that makes it much easier listening than, say, Ariel Pink’s 70s AM throwbacks. But Cosentino’s lyrical insistency--she loves her boy, she has fun with him, but is lost without him, why won’t he come back--drags a bit after about 10 or 11 tracks. Quibbling aside, it’s a fun (if ultimately minor) record by an interesting band. I’d love to see how she feels after another break-up or two.

I mentioned in a previous review how much I'm annoyed by the fuzzy, washed out production that seems so in vogue these days. Let my spoil the surprise early by saying that this is the biggest problem I have with Crazy For You. But unlike, say, that Ariel Pink album, Best Coast has actual identifiable songs with some catchy hooks and witty lyrics: with different production, this is at least an A- for me. Brandon's Liz Phair comparison is a good one, but it's a frustrating comparison as it highlights how much I would enjoy this album with a few different stylistic choices. The highlights for me are those with darker tones, where the muddled production doesn't take away so much, namely "I Want To" and "Honey."

1 comment:

Solon said...

I think the Best Coast album is the best minor album of the year (my second favorite is the Beach Fossils album).