REVIEW: Ben De La Cour Mixes Tall Tales with Hard Truths on “The High Cost of Living Strange”

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Earlier this spring, Ben de la Cour released his fourth album, The High Cost of Living Strange (Flour Sack Cape). Featuring Jimmy Sullivan on bass, Erin Nelson on drums, Billy Contreras on fiddle, Jeff Lisenby on accordion, and de la Cour on guitar, mandolin, MOOG, and vocals, the album was recorded in a few short days in one room with minimal overdubs and live tracking.

De la Cour describes his style of music as “Americanoir,” and it’s an apt description, as most of these songs could easily fit into a True Detective soundtrack or the like. Though not a strict concept album, each song tells its own story of characters out of luck or trying to make the best of the hand they’ve been dealt. Some songs, such as “Dixie Crystals” and “Tupelo,” are dark, minor key narratives that emphasize the “-noir” portion of this “Amerianoir” style. “Crystals” sounds like the story of Breaking Bad/Walter White’s long lost Southern cousin(s), with descriptions of meth labs and various derelicts throughout town looking for their next fix. “Tupelo” is just as grim, this time detailing a woman trying to hitch a ride out of this fabled Mississippi city. Thanks in part to the eerie, foreboding fiddle lines, it’s no surprise that this is a murder ballad. It’s unclear exactly why or how the narrator kills the woman, though this only adds to the ominous vibe of the track.

Others, such as “Uncle Boudreaux Went to Texas”, show a more tender side of de la Cour. It’s a sparse song, with only de la Cour’s deep, calming voice, a fingerpicked guitar, accordion, and the occasional background vocal. It details an uncle full of tall tales–playing gigs in Texas and meeting famous musicians such as Townes Van Zandt along the way. In reality, obviously, it’s a farce. Regardless, it is still a poignant yet relatable story—a melancholic sense of peace in making the most of what you’ve got, of living out your passions, even if it means finding your home and having to “sing your way to Texas every night.”

While The High Cost of Living Strange may not be your first choice to put on for a Christmas party, it tells hard truths but spares us the candy cane sugar coating. Despite some of its bleaker moments, it’s a reminder to still go after our dreams—even if, as most musicians will agree, you may feel strange being a “broke guy playing a rich man’s game.” He’s on tour through February—check him out here.  For our earlier review of Ben de la Cour, see here:  Interview: Ben de la Cour on Stephen Hawking, the Human Condition, and Songwriting

 

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