Ben de la Cour

REVIEW: Ben de la Cour “Sweet Anhedonia”


Ben de la Cour — Sweet Anhedonia

Ben de la Cour’s Sweet Anhedonia starts in the key of Tom Waits and ends with a sad, lonesome acoustic tune in the key of Steve Earle’s “Goodbye.” 

Between these two numbers Ben cuts to the core of Americana, paying tribute to many of the pioneers of the genre, including Gram Parsons and Emmylou Harris, a nod most evident on “Numbers Game,” which he co-wrote with Lynne Hanson and performs with dive bar sweetheart Becky Warren.

Produced by Jim White (renowned visual artist and Americana singer-songwriter featured on “Breaking Bad,” who also provides some vocals, banjo, percussion and keys on the album), Sweet Anhedonia is a journey into Ben’s soul, and into the deep heart’s core of our nation: “This land is full of secrets/this land has seen it all/the Apache and the antelope/Wal-Marts and strip malls/folks all say this used to be a good town/weren’t they all,” Ben grieves on “Maricopa County,”  a sorrowful contemporary outlaw folk song in the key of Guy Clark, featuring Josh Klein on trumpet, Serre on backing vocals and Billy Contreras on the lonesome fiddle.

Ben knows a thing or two about living hard, and living rough, but this is no memoir here. Ben’s a storyteller, and every character, every song feels real. It can all be visualized. “Shine on the Highway” is perhaps the best example. There’s haunting background vocals by Elizabeth Cook, drums that sound like thunder and more trumpet from Klein that comes in like it’s commemorating a fallen friend, and all the while Ben sings of hopelessness in the dead of winter.

The first track, “The Appalachian Book of the Dead,” is definitely a highlight. It’s a dark, gritty gospel tune that Leonard Cohen would appreciate. Luella’s hypnotizing background vocals, the cryptic guitar tones and “bad vibes,” as Ben puts it, really make this tune stand out.

There’s no shortage of stand-outs. The title track, the one that’s become my favorite on the album, is reminiscent of Aimee Mann in vocal melody with a delivery that sounds a little more like Jay Farrar of Son Volt. The track is pretty bare, which works perfectly, and Emily Scott Robinson’s heartfelt harmonies – along with Pat Hargon’s pedal steel – add depth, and hope.

Then Ben jumps into a shitkicker with “Suicide of Town,” co-written with Jerry Fuentes, a song that gets you pounding your beer on the table, or stomping your boot to the beat. It drives like Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit but is totally its own animal, with a breakdown towards the end where Ben really shows his vocal range. He can really wail. My favorite part of this tune is the vocal melody. It’s the song on the album most-likely to get stuck in your head.

Things slow down again with “Palukaville,” a piano ballad that’s a reflection on the hard lives of those with the music in their souls, those who pursue it more than anything else. It’s so often romanticized, but the reality is far from paradise. This is reflected with a unique take on Buddy Holly in the second verse. And the last line is incredible: “Like a cigar smoking on a window sill/I can just about hold myself together still/I’m too old to try to hold the weather/time’s running away and I’m just gonna let her.”

“Brother” is gothic acoustic blues, again reminiscent of early Steve Earle. And with his high register he sings it more like Emmylou (stylistically, that is). There’s a brokenness and an honesty here, and excellent advice from one rambler to another: “keep your head up high/keep your profile low/let them fools all take their chances/keep your cards face up and laughin.’”

“Birdcage” is unapologetically Tom Waits, somewhere between Rain Dogs and Mule Variations. White’s production and percussion couldn’t be better.

“American Mind” once again has an Aimee Mann vocal melody (especially on the chorus), and a more traditional folk groove, one a little more upbeat that you’ll be singing along to by the end. It’s a clever tune about how despair is a tired, unoriginal emotion, and one that’s passed down from generation to generation. We’re all tired. It’s also a spiritual journey, pondering whether we are alone or if there’s something else out there. Don’t expect an answer. Just ponder with him.

On the closing track, “I’ve Got Everything I’ve Ever Wanted,” Ben de la Cour sings that he’s “just another left foot walking through a right shoe world,” and he does so spitting truth and wisdom, sharing the hardships of the road, opening up about the journey through dark folk avant garde. Join him.

Sweet Anhedonia is available April 15 wherever you stream via Jullian Records. Other musicians on the album include Marlon Patton (drums), Jimmy Sullivan (bass), Andrea Demarcus (bowed bass), Jojo Glidewell (piano and keys), Clive Barnes (guitar), David Van Wyke (cello), Curtis McMurtry (banjo), Lulu Jones (mandolin, bazouki), Geert Hellings (guitar), Nikolaj Heyman (guitar), Nicolas Rombouts (bass). The album was recorded at Turpentine Music in Athens, Georgia, the Glow Recording Studio in Athens, Show Cave in Nashville and The Bomb Shelter in Nashville. It was mastered by John Keane.

Highlights include “Appalachian Book of the Dead,” “Sweet Anhedonia,”and  “Suicide of Town.”

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Enjoy our previous coverage here: Key to the Highway: Ben de la Cour

And here: Key to the Highway: Jim White

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