So Ben Cooper is at it again--
… stitching sounds in a Florida toolshed and going sans-record label to produce an incredibly untainted album. The Roots
, the first of The Family Tree
trilogy, is sturdy ground for the rest to branch.
It’s just shy of a year since I first heard Radical Face; it was wintertime. I remember being caught in a drab, wintry frame of mind (it happens every year) when I discovered Ghost
(Radical Face’s first LP), an album that felt fitting for the cold season, with the right dose of gloom to relate to. It’s not a sad album, but Ben has a way of celebrating darker-toned themes, constructing eerie ambiences that just consume the listener. Ghost
was a pick-me-up without sounding all drizzled with sunshine. Sometimes, it’s better to feel that sameness, instead of just striving for the opposite. We can all relate somehow to family. The term, family, might not mean warmth for all, and Ben documents this. The Roots
focuses on the past. I can remember asking Grandfather to tell me all those gripping childhood stories of a time that seemed so foreign, or about his past family I never directly knew, then yearning for the good tales over and over. It’s the same feeling here. Ben constructs a fictional, early 1800-1950s family tree--The Northcotes--and The Roots
narrates the early generations (the roots of the genealogy). The stories are almost uncomfortably personal-feeling at times, but they remain relatable to the listener, allowing the thought that every family has their down times:
“Father turned into a drinker, a dark bastard with a wooden heart.
Sister learned to be a mother, before she ever played another part.
I became a little terror. I lashed out at whatever’s around.
Took some time before I settled to find a mind that was somewhat sound.
And as it always does, time rushed on…”
Ben took the challenge to record with only the instruments available from the time period of the stories: voice, acoustic guitar, piano, and floor tom being the main four, with flourishes of banjo, strings, and hand claps. So there’s this immediate old-time feeling--this instant connection to tradition. Is this not what “folk” is meant to be in its strongest form? Really tethering to the past? But the music doesn’t feel dated, as the compositions are neoteric and fresh, so you’re left with a beautiful contrast of old and new; the album is stripped without being thinned. Ben has always had a way with assembling atmosphere. With Ghost
, you’d have ambient backdrops of kids laughing, crow calls, door creaks, or wind chimes. The Roots
opens with sounds of a desolate road-trail, with chirping insects and a palpable heaviness of nightfall approaching:
“As the warmth of the sun leaves my back,
and these bruise-colored skies turn to black.
None of these faces look the same,
and not a one knows my name.
…Oh, I am a long way from home.”
The music is visually
evocative. Following this, he begins his unique style of layering, enfolding simplistic rhythms and riffs to create music that’s sonorous and thick without being muddied, with bursts of Ghost
-esque clap-percussion sections that drive the songs. The Roots
is full of those “lines” and “moments” that clamp around your head and then linger. There’s a comfortable balance of stripped Ben-plus-guitar acts with the brimming, full-eared climaxes. The voice becomes an instrument, not just a passage for the story words. He overlays singing to feel almost hymn-like. As the generations will progress through the next two albums, Ben will tinker with more levels of production, adding to the instrument ensemble list, so feeling The Roots
in its wholeness will require the contrast of the following two…but even as a standalone, this album isn’t diminished.
I look forward to familiarizing myself with the Northcotes, absorbing into the music and the story. The album’s already beginning to feel like home.