Heartbreaking Bravery

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Ben Seretan – Ben Seretan (Album Review, Stream)

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If anyone was paying attention to the majority of this site’s content over these past two months, then they’ll be aware of how extraordinary 2014 was for new artists. One record that crept in just before the year wrapped also wound up being one of its best. While it’s impossible to imagine that Ben Seretan’s extraordinary self-titled record will hit the stratospheric heights of popularity that Beyonce elevated with her just-before-close 2013 self-titled, it’s a record fully deserving of similar levels of acclaim. Seretan’s been putting out records under his own name for the past four years, quietly building an absurdly strong discography. No record in the songwriter’s elegantly powerful streak hits as hard as the monumental achievement that this review aims to bring into sharp focus: Ben Seretan.

The breathtaking scope of the record is immediately evidenced by the towering “Ticonderoga”, which not only establishes Seretan’s penchant for mantra-esque writing earlier on but acts as a showcase for his versatility in composition. Elements of genres as varied as drone, post-rock, and math-punk get thrown into a melting pot and escape through an oddly beautiful cinematic lens. “Ticonderoga” also succeeds in illustrating Seretan’s gift with the tension/momentum dynamic, conjuring up an atmospheric peak that reaches a new zenith every time it enters its next movement. Unnervingly hypnotic and deceptively intricate, it’s a palette-setter that succeeds in seemingly every possible way. Unsurprisingly, the rest of the record seems to follow suit in its endlessly compelling roads that lead to that inevitable conclusion.

Masterful guitar-playing augments Seretan’s earnest vocal delivery, each always lending the other an emotional punch that’s impossible to ignore. Nature references garnish Seretan’s lyrics, lending the proceedings an ethereal feel that suits the music to a tee. Organs, synths, strings, and brass drift in and out as the record hums along, never becoming a distraction (this is thanks to the record’s brilliant production and Seretan’s uncanny control over his creations). Only one song- “My Lucky Stars“- clocks in under the five-and-a-half minute mark, while the majority of them exceed seven. As impossible as it seems with those numbers involved, Ben Seretan never overstays its welcome- instead, it excels in creating all-enveloping atmospherics that are built on equal parts restraint and exploration.

It’s that same dynamic that drives one of the record’s most staggering moments- eloquently-titled centerpiece “the Confused Sound of Blood in a Shining Person“. Opening with a narrative adorned with the arresting imagery of a “dead dog laying on a pile of sawdust”, it evokes a very specific place of time and all of the accompanying feelings, right down to the most minute detail, as it swells to an unforgettable climax where the title is- as is so often the case on Ben Seretan– repeated, unapologetic as it lodges itself into the listeners consciousness. While there are a great many of these moments on the record, this one stands as the sharpest thanks to the unexpectedly heavy emotional heft. Only album closer “Swing Low” comes close, thanks to its unhinged cathartic release. Driven by Seretan’s enviably masterful guitar work and a palpable sense of urgency. As closing notes go, it’s hard to best something like “Swing Low” which acts both as an epilgoue for its precedents and a likely foreword for the great things that seem destined to come.

Listen to Ben Seretan below and order a copy from Hope for the Tape Deck here.

Courtney Barnett – Pedestrian At Best (Music Video)

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Let’s just get this out of the way at the top: Sometimes I Sit And Think, And Sometimes I Just Sit is one of the greatest record titles since Yo La Tengo’s classic I Am Not Afraid of You And I Will Beat Your Ass. It’s a slyly self-deprecating line and it immediately illustrates Courtney Barnett‘s penchant for the wryly downtrodden- something she exploits the absolute hell out of in both the clip for “Pedestrian At Best” and the actual song. Even though we’re not even a full two months into 2015, “Pedestrian At Best” already seems to be occupying space in an upper-upper-tier register that precious few others have reached (Will Butler’s absurdly likable clip for the equally likable “Anna” being a definite candidate). What immediately makes “Pedestrian At Best” stand out is that it’s the most cutting thing in Barnett’s increasingly enviable discography. As if the frighteningly sharp teeth of the music wasn’t enough, this is easily the most unleashed and verbose Barnett’s allowed herself to be lyrically as well, occasionally bringing to mind a Stage Names-era Will Sheff at his most fearlessly unhinged.

As genuinely great as “Pedestrian At Best” is on its own, it’s the clip that renders this a definitive entry for Barnett’s early career. Emphatically punctuating Barnett’s stylistic tendencies, it balances a tautly-drawn tightrope between an abysmally bleak worldview and entertainingly subtle, tongue-in-cheek humor that continuously keeps things balanced. In a surprisingly compelling performance as the “Clown of 2013” that seems to pull a lot of inspiration from silent film’s golden era, Barnett gets to unleash a clever commentary on the nature of the indie press hype cycle and never falls out of focus. It’s that same cleverness that elevated her to her current status as one of today’s more revered young songwriters, it’s just coming across as slightly more refined. The band Barnett’s surrounded by (often quasi-sardonically referred to as “The Barnetts”) sounds like their matching her stride for stride in terms of ascending sharpness. Importantly, “Pedestrian At Best” also suggests that Barnett’s growing more spirited and vibrant as her career progresses, which could yield towering dividends for her future. We’re lucky to have a songwriter- and band- like this to claim for our generation- “Pedestrian At Best”, if anything, is an exacting reminder of why.

Watch “Pedestrian At Best” below and pre-order Sometimes I Sit And Think, And Sometimes I Just Sit here.