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.)