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<b>Ben Bedford</b> Ben Bedford
Album: The Pilot and the Flying Machine
Label: Waterbug
Tracks: 11

I've been prevaricating over this review. Not because I'm unconvinced by the album, but because I wasn't sure I could write something that would do it justice. I discovered the Illinois-born singer-songwriter with his third album, What We Lost, in 2012, and was blown away.

Taking inspiration from literary heroes John Steinbeck and Toni Morrison and such musical influences as Gordon Lightfoot, Harry Chapin, Guy Clark and Townes Van Zandt, here were songs about the people, the ghosts, the places and the memories of America's heartland, his tales invested with poignant observation and insightful portraits of lives lived and dreams lost or broken. While Van Zandt remains an influence, along with Patty Griffin, his voice here reminds me greatly of Don McLean, while inspiration comes from the piano work of Vladimir Horowitz and Thelonius Monk, 50s jazz and classical recordings and the theatrical songwriting style of Kate Bush. His sound, though, recorded in the Douglas Avenue United Methodist Church in Springfield with wife Kari on harmonies, remains firmly rooted in American folk and country, shadings of pop sensibilities here, a touch of campfire there.

Illinois sculptor Michael A. Dunbar and his navigational-like works were apparently a catalyst for the motifs of flight and journey that take off with the first of the two part title track, a simple finger picked acoustic number, embellished with Diederik van Wassernaer's violin, about setting out on a journey that others have deemed impossible as he sings "They told me that I couldn't catch the sun, they told me that I couldn't catch the moon……they will see me rise into the blue out beyond the darkness of the night/ looking down on all as if it's new." It reminds me very much of McLean's Vincent, and is every bit as good.

This is followed by my personal favourite on an album of highlights, as, the lyrics taking us passing through Omaha, Ethan Jodziewice's double bass introducing and underpinning "Letters From The Earth" (the title a reference to Mark Twain's posthumously published essays, written at his lowest ebb), a song about looking for a sign of hope as the heart-swelling chorus soars into "I see a wreck ahead with no place to swerve."

Again evocative of McLean at his most reflective, "High and Low" is a lovely song about putting your fears aside and the philosophical journey to find meaning when the truth is there in front of you as he sings "there's nothing in the sky but the clouds, there's nothing in the branches but the breeze… no voice is calling, follow me" and how " to want a thing with all your heart doesn't make it true."

The nature imagery continues in the metaphorical setting of the slow marched "The Fox" ("he steals upon his midnight rounds/ in his boots as black as mud, past the iron spires that belch their fires into the river's blood"), a sort of spare and , chamber folk blues with keening violin. He then takes a stylistic swerve into actual events in that the slowly swelling, strummed and double bass accompanied six-and-a-half-minute "The Voyage of John and Emma" narrates the story of his great great great grandparents journey across the Atlantic from Yorkshire to settle in Illinois. This is then followed by the equally factually-based "Blood on Missouri", a slow strummed lament about the protests and riots that followed in the wake of the shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, the ironic inclusion of the National Anthem line "oh say can you see by the dawn's early light" underscoring how little America's civil rights and race relations have progressed.

Built around bass and fiddle,' Orrery' is a brisk four minute instrumental that, keeping the theme of motion, takes its title from a three dimensional moving model of the solar system, before 'Scioto', a reference to the river that runs through central and southern Ohio, draws on the migratory nature of Native American life to essentially speak about home is where you make it, not in the "new houses they frame every year at the edge of the town", a song that sets the call of the land against the voice of religion ("why listen to god, his silence is all that you hear").

The second part of the title track leads into the final stretch, a classical chamber intro giving way to rippling acoustic guitar that builds on the first part's hope to touch on doubt and regret ("we've got light years left to go, darlin' I've nothing more to give, I've nothing more to give to thee") in a love song between, as the title says, the pilot and his plane. Again featuring strings accompaniment, the fingerpicked 'PrairyErth' extends the conceit into a metaphysical escape into the world of nature ("I dance the sun around my shoulder, my confidant the wind, my home I keep, I am no traveler, … I sleep on flint, dome of Eden, with the sword ablaze above/ and I wake at dawn with the heathen, plover and the dove").

The album ends on a reflective note with the crooned, nocturnal tone of 'Long Blue Hills', a strings-swept journey of love into the life they embody that ends on a note of calm and certainty as he assures "leave all words unsaid, I'll be around." I sincerely hope for, for many, many years and albums to come.

Mike Davies