REVIEW: Ben Davis: The Hushed Patterns of Relief
Ben Davis: The Hushed Patterns of Relief (Lovitt Records, 2001)
When one listens to an album called "The Hushed Patterns of Relief", one would normally expect hushed patterns. Of relief.
To be perfectly honest, I don't know what "hushed patterns of relief" are, exactly, so it's very possible that this album is indeed full of them. My first guess, however, would be that they're very quiet songs, expressing discovery, revelation and relief.
And I'd be wrong.
The Hushed Patterns of Relief succeeds exactly where it wants to, and no further. It doesn't surpass its own expectations, nor does it reinvent the wheel. What Ben Davis does is squeeze out ten songs that inhabit that pensive place that comes after the rainy Sunday afternoon but before the Tuesday dance number. It's a Monday album, a stormy album, an album that's not entertaining to overhear, but is rewarding when listened to. It's rough, whiny, and not very pretty. But it's honest.
Thank-you, Ben Davis, for being honest.
It's been said that a new musical genre is invading North America and the UK, to much acclaim. Truth be told, the sound's an old one, having been applied by everyone from Bob Dylan to Lou Reed. "Electric Folk" is Big-with-a-capital-B, and artists from Badly Drawn Boy to Beth Orton to David Gray are rising to prominence with their delicious combination of acoustic guitar tendencies and, well, electricity. Many people are acting as if this is a new thing, this quiet blend of softie rock and nontraditional folk. Many people must not have heard "The Sound of Silence".
The Hushed Patterns of Relief isn't "Electric Folk". It is crunchy and dark, without smoothed edges. Folk Metal.
I've read in a few places that Ben Davis sounds like the aforementioned Elliott Smith. I suppose he does, if you squint (or find some way to make your ears squint). He lacks Smith's whispered sweetness, however, opting instead for a caustic sneer. Singing in a style reminiscent of Destroyer's Daniel Bejar, Ben sings of expended effort and rising need. His voice rises and falls, jerking out at surprising times, refusing to sacrifice the emotion of the moment for the sake of melodic smoothness. His noisy, punkish roots (as a member of Sleepytime Trio and Milemarker) are in full evidence, from the droning Sonic Youth (lite) guitars of "Coats Need Rest Too", to the biting bassline of "Work of Many". Even Davis' quieter songs, like "Misdirection" and "Finally I Stand" possess an entirely angular sound, and Davis, while fond of his piano, lends it no grace or pop bounce - the notes are all brash, ugly. Throughout the album, the drums - while slow - are positively violent.
What Davis is singing matches these sounds, however. "You'll never say what I want to hear/You wrestle/You wrestle yourself again/And I wrestle/I wrestle to stay awake," he murmurs on "Wrestling Won't Help". Like the Red House Painters, Davis embraces the bitter taste of his thoughts, letting that pain impact his songs. For what's billed as a quiet solo album, most of the album's tracks are surprisingly loud, bolstered by rawk guitars, lap steel, and a cello. This isn't the cello of Damon Gough's "The Shining", mind you -- it grates and churns, joining the angst and ache of its counterparts.
The Red House Painters are indeed the closest thing to what Davis has assembled here. Just as Mark Kozelek's songs feel like Nick Drake without sounding like Nick Drake, this record captures the intent of a soft, singer-songwriter recording, but instead lets the content push it down another path, to gritty guitars and stinging piano. The fierceness of Davis' resolve however, his lack of self-consciousness or smarmy irony, allows him to succeed, rejecting Electric Folk while still retaining a fraternity in spirit.
The Hushed Patterns of Relief is not hushed, but somewhere at its core is the pattern that Elliott Smith and Damien Jurado have both followed. Ben Davis' quiet songs are noisy, and they're ugly, but their beauty lies underneath that, and those depths are definitely worth exploring.
YLTIYL: The Red House Painters, Pedro the Lion, Bright Eyes, Hayden, Sebadoh.