Jon Bennett‘s A Saint’s Book is a modest, unassuming folk EP that packs a way bigger punch than it would seem. None of the seven songs here break three minutes; none feature more instrumentation than Bennett’s fluid fingerpicking, slightly gritty vocals, and occasional whistling. Yet within these parameters, Bennett spins observant, literate tales that recall The Freewheeling Bob Dylan. The speedy guitar performance and talking-blues vocal style of “Ukiah” most call up the Dylan of old, but there are traces throughout of a similar unadorned, rough-around-the-edges glory.
“Scotty in the Trees” and “The Dressmaker” both create memorable character sketches in a remarkably short span, with the latter managing to work in the phrases “whale baleen” and “a glass of absinthe” in meaningful ways. Bennet’s lyrics have a much different bent than The Mountain Goats’, but both songwriters pack a lot of development into few phrases. The slight, sprightly instrumental “Flood” shows off Bennett’s guitar skills, too.
If you’re looking for a new singer-songwriter to charm your old-school folk-loving ears, you should definitely check out A Saint’s Book. It’s a remarkable release.
1. “Evergreen” – The Tomes. This moving track pits a clear-eyed vocal performance and swift fingerpicking against a swooning violin and delicate piano performance. The results are light and yet weighty; dramatic, yet intimate.
2. “Modesto” – Jon Bennett. This creaky speakin’ folk made my heart leap in recognition and desire, reminded me of Jeffrey Lewis and Bob Dylan. What else do I need to tell you to get you to listen to this?
3. “Unpuzzle Me” – Kate Copeland. There’s something ghostly and close about the mandolin and vocal pairing here that comforts me.
4. “No Mercy in the Night” – Natalie Lurie. Lurie’s harp is insistent, her voice is glorious, and the arrangement frames it all perfectly to sound like a female-fronted Barr Brothers.
5. “Heroin Strings” – Jack Conman. The perfectly-recorded drums here sound just north of empty cans in a big room, which gives this ominous tune a bit of an extra pop. Conman’s vocal performance is also particularly evocative and moody.
6. “The Big Surprise” – Trickster Guru. Elements of Carrie and Lowell run through this moody, death-pondering track.
7. “Long Way Back” – Terri Binion. From the jaunty old-school country vibes, you wouldn’t know that this is a track about a tragic death of a wife and the attempts to cope with that.
8. “Fear of Music” – Tobie Milford. Fans of Antony and the Johnsons will connect with Milford’s theatrical vocals, complex orchestral arrangements, and intensely dramatic moods.
9. “Up There Listening” – Jordan Prince. Back porch picking on a banjo and guitar with Prince’s sweet, charming voice making the tune even more endearing.
10. “Child of the ’70s” – Derek Clegg. Evocative of flower-power folk (Jackson Browne! James Taylor!) but subverts the script by being a song about growing older. It’s like Ben Folds’ “The Ascent of Stan,” but chiller and more accepting of the realities entailed therein.
11. “I Will Follow You” – RIVVRS. Ah, home sweet home: tom thump, “hey,” upbeat strum, romantic lyrics, catchy melodies. This one’s for everyone who just loves a good, honest, earnest folk-pop tune.
Stephen Carradini and friends write reviews of bands that are trying to make the next step in their careers.