I don’t usually review albums pre-release, partially because I like readers to be able to hear/acquire what I’m writing about and partially because it seems like I always have a backlog. But with the new year, that latter point is moot, and with his pre-order, so is the former! So even though Ben Fisher‘s Charleston doesn’t come out until February, I’ve got the itch to write it up and the time to do it.
The goal of some artists is to always press forward: to keep growing not simply into the best version of themselves, but to then transcend that best version with another best version. Fisher’s previous releases saw him ascending toward greater things, and Charleston is that greater thing. But it also doesn’t feel final, as if Fisher has nowhere to go: this is a complete statement that yet points to greater things to come. Fisher’s voice, which he was working on finding in previous EPs, shows up in more than just occasional flashes here.
Fisher will probably get lumped into the folk category, but he very clearly meshes distinct elements of folk, country, and singer/songwriter genres. Opener “Mason Jar” is titled for a favorite hipster-folk icon, but it’s quite clearly an upbeat, ’70s-folk-influenced tune. “Dreaming & Doubt” is a straight-up country tune, complete with weeping pedal steel guitar. “Magnolia Lane” shows off his folky troubadour bonafides in a gorgeous guitar-and-voice ballad.
On the note of gorgeous: the songwriting is excellent, and it’s made even more impressive by the excellent production work. Fisher ran a Kickstarter so that Charleston could be produced by Noah Gunderson, engineered by Floyd Reitsma at Seattle’s Studio Litho, and mastered by Ed Brooks at RFI (in the aforementioned city). Their technical chops make the tunes jump out of headphones clear and crisp, whether it’s a full-band arrangement or a piano/vocals take. It just sounds beautiful.
More on the songwriting, though! “Hyde Park” shows off Fisher’s lyrical abilities and vocal melody prowess: it seems that the ode to Chicago just spills out without effort, both lyrically and vocally. “Dublin Blues Pt. 2″ is another in the same vein, a tune that is charming, clever, and affecting all at once. “Rare Desert Rains” is a stark, evocative piano/vocals tune that calls up the best of The Mountain Goats’ work on The Life of the World to Come, which is a humongous compliment from over here. The religious themes resonated deep with me, while the melodies moved me.
But the centerpiece and true heart of the album is its title track, which is presented in two different ways: as a cosmopolitan full-band folk tune and a wistful instrumental piano reprise. Either way you hear it, it’s a elegant ode to hometowns and how they are hard to leave; the fact that the tune keeps coming up in the album drives the point home all the more. If you give it the space to affect you, you may find yourself chuckling and pensive in turns.
Some albums seem effortless; some seem like intensely constructed pieces of art. Charleston is the best of both worlds: the tunes seem to have fallen from the sky unbidden, but the construction of the album makes it clear that this was deeply thought through. Fisher has worked so hard on this album that it doesn’t sound like he had to work that hard at all; with his easygoing baritone, beautiful songwriting, and crisp production, this is an album that will charm you. That’s a voice starting to emerge. This album will say hello, set up shop in your living room, and refuse to leave. It’s a strong statement from Fisher, and one that I expect to be listening to throughout the year. Highly recommended.
(If you’re in Seattle and want to hit the release show on Feb 7, tickets are here.)
Ben Fisher‘s Roanoke EP comes on the heels of his 2011 debut album Heavy Boots and Underwoods. The latter showed flashes of brilliance and foreshadowed a bright future for folk-singer Fisher; Roanoke is where he starts to build on that foundation. Since The Tallest Man on Earth’s nasally voice is a high price of entry, opener “You’re Gonna Make Me Lonesome When You Go” becomes instantly likable by aping Kristian Matsson’s carefree strum and pairing it with Fisher’s low voice. “Dublin Blues Pt. 2″ puts some forlorn but interesting lyrics into a country mold, with good results. But it’s “Hibernation” that sticks with me, as the gently fingerpicked tune sounds like a calmed-down Tallest Man in both the vocals and the guitar. The melodic flourishes that fill it out give a sense of Josh Ritter-esque gravitas, while not feeling too much like a Ritter tune. The title track is a high-desert tune with pedal steel, shakers and a wide-open feel; “To Conclude…” is a quiet strummer, but the vocals push a little hard against the gentle track.
That push and pull between gentle and intense is where Fisher lives on this EP (his bio says that he “tends to bellow”), but he doesn’t turn gentle songs into roars (like Damien Rice) or speed them way up (The Tallest Man on Earth). Instead, he fills his gentle performances with a confident energy. It’s a tough thing to explain, but that’s why it’s great: it sets Fisher apart. I’m looking forward to more tunes from Fisher, as Roanoke is a satisfying chapter in Fisher’s songwriting that points towards more good in the future.
White Blush‘s bedroom electronica is of the claustrophobic, moody and sparse type. I’m not too familiar with the genre, but I checked it out due to the Portishead connections I heard in the sound. Carol Rhyu’s music is much more mellow and free-flowing than Portishead’s lock-step trip-hop, but both share the ability to traverse in dark sounds without sounding particularly evil or sad. They just like hanging out in the nighttime, it seems. “Without You” builds from some fragmented melodic elements into a swirling, pensive tune. “808 Myst” is an eerie sort of chiptune piece that traffics in the same moody vein as “Without You,” while “Wait” is a stark tune that strips her sound down to vocals, a casio and soft rhythmic thumps. It’s oddly intriguing, just as the other two tunes. White Blush has delivered three beautiful tunes here; fans of ambient or other quiet electro would really enjoy this.
Josh Ritter’s debut Hello, Starling showed flashes of brilliance that hinted at the incredible things to come. Seattle singer/songwriter Ben Fisher‘s Heavy Boots and Underwoods gives off a similar vibe. This connection is partly invoked by Fisher’s choice of sounds, as he writes in organ sounds similar to those used on Starling standout “Kathleen” in opener “Thunderbird” and “Stars Like Bears.” Another aspect is Fisher’s confident vocal delivery: clear and bright, his inflection-laden tenor carries the album.
Written and recorded with deep attention to detail, the songs on Heavy Boots and Underwoods are uniformly beautiful. That beauty manifests in many ways: easygoing charm (“Cast Your Line”), dramatic storytelling (“El Llano Estacado”), off-the-cuff folk strum (the title track) and more. Fisher is adept at guitar and banjo, bringing a great deal of variation to song moods with his multi-tasking instrumental skills.
As Starling sets a foundation for Ritter, so does Heavy Boots and Underwoods for Fisher. It’s clear to me that Fisher has a unique songwriting skill that he is only beginning to tap: subsequent albums should help him break away from his Ritter comparisons and into his own voice. The tightly-reined intensity that runs through “El Llano Estacado” and “Bed of Ash” points to a future lyrical and/or musical ferocity that could put Fisher on some big stages.
Heavy Boots and Underwoods is a rare treat: a singer/songwriter’s debut that puts a foot toward a unique future while tipping a hat to its forebears. Highly recommended.