Review Summary: If you only listen with your ears… I can’t get in.The Family Tree: The Branches
is a cinematic experience without the screen. Snuff out the lights, sink back into your bedroom, and let the stories project and flicker on the backs of your eyes. Become a drifter, taken in by the fictitious Northcotes, and settle down onto their porch, watching from the outside as the lives of this flawed and eccentric family unfold. Though their bloodline is mostly fabricated, it’s relatable in an authentic way.
Ben Cooper (Radical Face) has always been a writer and lyricist alongside a musician, where neither side seems to trail behind the other, and his fascination with literature shines through in the second Family Tree
narrative, The Branches
. By no means does the album scrupulously mirror Ben’s upbringing, but he does manage to intertwine pieces of his past with the history of the Northcotes. He mentions that The Mute was inspired by his quiet nephew with autism. "The Crooked Kind" is about anyone that feels alienated from their family’s offbeat beliefs, and Ben admits there’s a little of himself in there. He strived for normalcy growing up, but the song retorts, “So collect your scars and wear ‘em well. Your blood’s a good an ink as any.” The lyrics are sometimes plainspoken, which works well with the storytelling nature of the album. For example, with "In Letters Home," you get a taste of this unassuming story delivery. Through the perspective of the notes sent home from a war-injured family member, the song breathes the life of the character through Ben: “You would not believe the things I miss. It’s all the little things that fill that list, like playing with the dogs and helping father chop the wood behind the fence.” This matter-of-fact writing is contrasted by the more poetic tracks. The Mute is beautifully ironic. This “silent” character shares a confident and well-crafted ballad, admitting, “I had conversations with the clouds, the dogs, the dead. And they thought me broken, that my tongue was coated lead.” Some song segments can be stripped away from the story and used to reflect your own modern relationships. If you really dive in, you’ll come up with resonating introspections that drift around your brain for days: “I’m either honest or I’m an optimist, but never both at the same time.”
Structurally, The Branches
opens in similar fashion to The Roots
with "Gray Skies," a raw, unprocessed track that’s ethereal and muddy. An ominous, falsetto melody floats around, swimming in reverb, almost sounding like a funeral hum, and then transitions into a more upbeat track while maintaining a sobering storyline. Some of the production may feel a bit recycled at first, but this yields an immediate connection to the past album. You can pick out familiar clap sounds and makeshift percussion, all mashing up perfectly with the acoustic instruments and vocals, but you’ll soon notice the cultivation of The Roots
into The Branches
. The notion of The Family Tree
actually goes back beyond The Roots
--some Radical Face inception here. Even before this current concept trio, Ben proclaims in his 2007 album, Ghost
, “I cut my branch down from my family tree to start a fire in the living room. Now the house is just ash…” So even here, we see Ben hinting at tales of a dismembered family. The Branches
represents upward and outward growth from The Roots
. There’s a layered lushness to this current album that is blooming with newness. Ben is experimenting with more modern sounds. Notice the reverb-rich guitar tone slathered overtop the mix at the end of Reminders, the lavish fusion in From The Mouth of an Injured Head, where the typical ensemble earns the addition of a harpsichord, stringed instruments, and a conventional drum set, and the dissonant, dense, climactic ending of The Gilded Hand that vigorously contrasts the coarse, haunting introduction. It’s the details from Radical Face that can really pull you in. There’s a perfect hand-in-hand relationship between crisp production and rawness, owed mostly to Ben crafting all his albums in his homemade, toolshed studio, infusing the atmosphere of the place with the recordings. There’s warmth in human error, and Ben manages to not strangle out any character. The handclaps don’t hit perfectly together. The percussion has variation and texture. There’s the creak of a ragged door. All these details grab hold, pulling in the listener.
"Holy Branches" jumpstarts The Branches
with an infectious guitar and piano progression, and then sets a theme that reverberates through the album: though some songs may appear bright and enthusiastic like any ole’ folksy sing-along, more often than not this serves as a second skin overtop the somber perspective. Ben encourages the listener to really dig their claws in, uprooting all the layers. The album isn’t meant to depress, though. Similar to its predecessor, The Branches thrives off of association. Ben presents sadness in a way that’s genuine, familiar and warm.
"But everybody’s bones are just holy branches
Cast from trees to cut patterns in the world
And in time we find some shelter,
Spill our leaves, and then sleep in the earth."