Canada seems to be producing a remarkable breed of innovative and accomplished Singer-Songwriters that loosely sit in the Folk/Roots idiom, but in reality defy easy categorisation. These include Carly Dow, Cam Penner and Oliver Swain, all of which I have been lucky enough to review for Fatea. The latest addition to this stable is Ben Caplan who again is new to my ears, but like the others has been forging his craft for some considerable time now and is pretty well established in the USA and beyond.
His debut album 'In the Time of the Great Remembering' was released in 2011 and since then Ben has clocked up over 1,000 live shows. This new release, 'Birds With Broken Wings' features over thirty five guest musicians and collaborators on the twelve tracks which were recorded over three intense weeks in the studio. His stated aim was to explore the sort of things not attainable in live situations but which become exciting possibilities in the studio.
Sometimes this sort of aspiration can be the kiss of death to the final product, leading to a meandering, over indulgent mess. However, that is certainly not a charge to be levelled here. Of course the CD has got plenty of 'bells and whistles' but at its heart it is tight and cohesive, welded together by the remarkable voice of Ben Caplan, the quality of the song writing and the stunning musicianship.
Before looking at some of the songs, special mention has to be given to the sheer brilliance of the recording, mixing and production by Josh "Socalled" Doglin and Renauld Letang. The sound is simply wonderful and as someone who is a little obsessive about a recorded drum sound, I have to say it is perfection here, sharp, crisp and tucked neatly in the driving seat of the mix with that all important snare drum crack!
So, on to the music.
Track one, 'Birds With Broken Wings' enters on a lovely, driving banjo riff, closely followed by the rough hewn tones of Ben's bellow of a voice and the percussive drums. The song builds throughout with additional instrumentation and is lyrically very strong, with the words and phrases tumbling over one another.
'I Got Me a Woman' is another banjo led song but more obviously folksy and traditional sounding, with another very strong melody.
Track three 'Belly Of The Worm' is simply stunning and for me the stand out song in every sense on the album. An exquisite piano introduction, a marvellously understated, world weary vocal which is all the more powerful for that, stately drumming and an archetypal lyric. Add in perfect horns that build through the second and third chorus and you have musical perfection.
'Ride On' wisely changes things up again and is largely and acoustic guitar based song that again drives along with another scatty lyric.
Track five 'Under Control' stretches out all the bases covered or hinted at in the preceding four tracks and is gloriously bonkers! In lesser hands, this could have become something of a parody but here the excess completely works. The song almost feels music hall and vaudeville in presentation, sounding like a more tuneful Tom Waits performing a lost piece from 'Fiddler on the Roof'. In fact, by the end chants of 'La da da da dum' that close the song, I would not have been surprised if it hadn't segued into Topol's 'If I Was A Rich Man'!
'Deliver Me' moves towards Jazz territory with Ben sounding as smooth and sweet as Frank Sinatra and this song boasts a particularly fine bass and drum shuffle recording.
The rest of the album follows a shifting, restless feel covering as many bases as are musically possible. The only track that does not work for me is '40 Days & 40 Nights' which is played fairly straight as a ballad but feels a bit weak lyrically and unusually formulaic when in the heady company of the other ten tracks.
A minor quibble though, the rest is universally excellent and 'Lovers Waltz' with another fine piano figure is a beautiful performance to close the album on.
Another major, if not the major, feature of this CD is of course the great voice of Ben Caplan. It is variously described as 'an enormous voice, roaring louder than raucous crowds' yet still able to 'croon smoother than a glass of single malt whisky'. All that and more is evident on this album, but what is equally important in my view is that his vocal never overwhelms anything on display here but is another instrument in service of the song and is all the more impressive for that.
So, yet another outstanding album from a Canadian artist. Wonderful voice, exemplary playing, brilliant material, all masterfully recorded and a fine portrayal of Ben Caplan's musical vision.
Made to stretch the boundaries in the studio maybe, but I think Ben Caplan and his road band 'The Casual Smokers' attempts to represent this sound live will truly be an experience to behold.
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