Ben Winship – Toolshed – Snake River Records – Review by John Apice
As noted in the PR — 2 full LPs is a daunting prospect. I agree. Once you get past a certain ounce of creative posturing the material becomes repetitious, even uninspired. Coke becomes Pepsi becomes Royal Crown becomes no-name brand cola.
Many notable artists do doubles. Often even they come up empty.
One prolific artist unknown in America was the late Scottish singer-songwriter, Jackie Leven. A performer who virtually never repeated himself throughout multiple releases. He also had a special arrangement with his record company to release some as Sir Vincent Lone. The music was stunning, lyrics poetic & Leven was a consistent performer. But he was rare.
Ben Winship fortunately, with his own Idaho studio subscribes to the Bob Dylan & The Band-type environment — that Big Pink basement at Woodstock. The feeling’s there, the thick upbeat musical atmosphere. Winship creativity – while not hitting the target every time – is better than most artists at their best.
His first LP in 22 years, TOOLSHED – to drop July 19th dips its toe into country, folk, Dixieland jazz, vintage country & with multiple musicians all proficient – how can he lose? The songs are creative, well-thought-out & in the case of “Crossing the Great Divide,” lead vocalist Travis Brook touches The Band’s late Richard Manuel respectably. Arranger Eric Thorin lays down Allan Toussaint inspired brass while Ben plays mandolin, Brent Moyer (Guitars), Ben Somers (Saxes), Rachel Bundy (Trumpet), John Kidwell (Trombone) & Brian Mcrae (Drums) with Eli West & Margo Valiante – harmony vocals.
Track 5 maintains The Band groove on “Dumb Luck & Elbow Grease.” Ben’s lead vocals & Mollie O’Brien’s harmony vocal are perfect; Somers punctuates again with a beautiful sax. Lyrically, the song is ingenious, well-written & the music – sweet. At 3:22 the song takes a turn into some neat percussion, with Stanton Moore drums & Joe Rudd’s jazzy Rhodes that lays down space for Somers’ 2nd sax finale.
Circus music follows — inventive banjo & bass by Ben, Brian Wicklund fiddle & Michael Dowling guitar & Christian Teele percussion. “The Buzzard’s Dilemma,” — an instrumental with a backwoods Tom Waits feel. The LPs tunes are well-recorded, & Ben manages to keep repetition from the backdoor. Each track has its personality. Simplicity seems evident, but Ben toughens each tune with character. It’s as if he’s wearing a nice blue suit, a tie to satisfy the conservative contingency. But under it all he’s got an illustrated Groucho Marx t-shirt with a cigar in its mouth.
“Always the Mountain,” is potent country-folk-Americana. Woody Guthrie would’ve embraced this one.
Original artists have a penchant for things that always surprise me. An acoustic guitar with a bellowing tuba on “Tamp ‘em Up Solid,” is this one. Matt Perrine blows the giant bottom notes, Ben plays mandola & sings in his best Rick Danko-Kinky Friedman vocal along with Mollie O’Brien. Forrest Gibson’s acoustic guitar & Ty Burhoe’s tabla follow the tuba. This is a surprisingly good tune. The Grateful Dead could’ve played this to rousing applause.
Somewhat in a French cabaret dancehall style “My Name’s Mudd” is a Tom Waits’ decorated song. Bo Elledge’s excellent moody vocal & David Lange’s accordion, all woven into a tight Brecht-Weill manifestation. Glorious in its simplicity. Ben Somers toots a German-dark sax ala “Three Penny Opera,” between the other players as Ben sticks nice mandolin notes twixt the cracks.
Louisiana legend Ivan Neville sings with deep Randy Newman inflection. Dixieland overtones snared with precision & good lyrics. “What’s the Matter with the Well,” is quite good if not impressive. Written about the 2010 Deepwater Horizon disaster. It’s based on Memphis Minnie’s classic “What’s the Matter with the Mill.”
Ben nurtures each song & though his style is derivative of many accomplished genres he’s true to the roots. Many new songs sound vintage. Evident of great talent. Ben even tackles rap, adds mandolin & horns to prove melody can be overlaid onto rap. I don’t like rap. I thought this was a misstep. It wasn’t.
The 12-track 48-minute CD: Available at Ben Winship Facebook, website & Bandcamp. Produced by Ben Winship.