DIY homesick blues: The music of Ben Cooper

Radical Face epitomizes for me what's good about so much small- (or no-) label music right now: the appropriation of non-traditional instrumentation, layering, thickness, the use of technology to embolden a DIY aesthetic, the redemption of "found" sounds.

May 29 th 2009
Ben Cooper
Radical Face

I can't imagine what heaven is like—but that doesn't stop me from trying.

Occasionally, my wife asks me how I envision it. I'll proceed with an answer, with the assumption that heaven isn't primarily an ethereal, other-worldly reality, but very much a this-worldly reality, a physical, redeemed place, as I began to understand years ago while reading Al Wolter's book Creation Regained.

Before answering, I'll usually stall, issuing theological caveats and other qualifications, as I'm doing now, because I feel something close to shame when answering the question—shame for the thinness of my imagination. And yet, if this world is in the process of being redeemed, as I believe it is, then I have good reason to hope that what moves me here (now) will have a place there (then). I don't finally know what I'm talking about; perhaps I'm verging on mysticism.

Enough of that. Here's what I imagine:

I'm in a parade. The parade route runs a straight line through city centers and down country roads. The roads are lined with people on foot and on bike and on tractors. Wind. Lots of wind. And leaves. And there's my child, laughing at the leaves blowing around him. He's with my wife, who scrunches her nose and motions me, with her head, onward.

There's so much smiling and clapping and birds all over the place and swelling string music and a guiding percussion; the beat is neither military nor funereal nor the march of wedding, but something entirely other, and it draws me forward through the crowds and toward a horizon, an October dusk in the midwest, and I'm alone now, the sounds of the parade faint but steady behind me, and I hear my name—I have never heard my name pronounced this way, so gently and mercifully—being called in front of me. "Jeremy Clive Huggins," it says, "Welcome home. You're home. You're home. Welcome home." It was a welcome home parade.

This is not theology. It's more like scoring, composing a sensory soundtrack to resurrection. Who I really and fully am waits to be seen; until then, something in the score isn't right.

This is one way that I describe homesickness. It's also how I explain the act of making mix tapes for someone. In essence, when you make a mix tape for someone (especially a potential romantic partner), what you're doing is presenting a soundtrack and hoping that it will fit the other's storyline. Something like that.

This is all to explain why I'm drawn to the music of Ben Cooper, and specifically the music he makes under his solo moniker, Radical Face (Cooper is involved in numerous collaborations, most well-known among them Electric President). The album Ghost by Radical Face fits my storyline. Ghost is a lo-fi project (recorded entirely in a tool shed) that takes individual sounds I love (windchimes, birds, handclaps, accordion, banjo, violin, organ, piano, children's voices, cymbals, whistles, mandolin, creaks, junk, oohs and aahs) and turns them into a score for a journey home, to an awaiting parade. Or try this: if you were to hire The Shins to play at your wake, it would sound like Radical Face.

In various interviews, Cooper acknowledges the heavy influence of classical composers and instrumental pieces, and you can hear that, especially in the choral swells that appear throughout the album. But this isn't classical music. This is fairly straightforward acoustic music, made lush and layered by an imagination and a laptop. Based on the appreciation of my peers and those music reviewers I read, this sound—orchestral, layered—seems to be striking a welcome note. I'm not sure that I could defend a thesis on the subject, but it seems that Cooper wants to make his music more (how do I describe this?) "filmic."

I don't think that Cooper's hope is primarily that his songs will end up in the movies. But they could. In fact, as I look at the most-played artists in my iTunes, I realize that I could categorize the majority of them—Sigur Ros, Joseph Arthur, Iron & Wine, Sufjan Stevens, Joel Harris, Sun Kil Moon, Explosions in the Sky, Trent Dabbs, Band of Horses, The Notwist, Adam Weaver and the Ghosts, Balmorhea—as filmic. While I don't dare to speak for "the music scene" or "my generation," I will say that Radical Face epitomizes for me what's good about so much small- (or no-) label music right now: the appropriation of non-traditional instrumentation, layering, thickness, the use of technology to embolden a DIY aesthetic, the redemption of "found" sounds.

My only complaint with Cooper is his fairly limited vocal range. His voice is good, but it doesn't share the register of most of the artists I mentioned. But this is where his layering and scoring pay off. I don't need him to hit falsetto notes because his choral swellings do all the lifting.

Lyrically, this particular album, Ghost, is a fairly traditional concept record. Its theme is that when we leave a house that we've lived in, we leave parts of ourselves behind. Each song ostensibly tells the story of an individual not yet at home, most likely never to be in this world:

I closed my eyes and saw my father's sins
They covered me like a second skin
I peeled them off, and sure, I bled a bit
But now I'm free to sink my own damn ship

I cut my branch down from my family tree
To start a fire in the living room
Now the house is just ash, this time it's sink or swim

Let the river in
If blood is thicker than water
Then let the river in


(from "Let the River In")

From what I can tell, Cooper doesn't share my theology or my understanding of homesickness, but his music fits me still. It fits me because the reality behind homesickness, the longing for identity, claws at all of us, and that clawing is all over this album:

[birds chirp in the background]

Well, I found a wheel that squeaks and squeals
And I left it on your doorstep
Because I heard that you might be broken, too
And I thought it'd keep you company

But even though I am lost all the time
I've got hooks in my sides that you left there
But you're not the same, you died along the way
Now we're ghosts and we're praying for winter


(from "Homesick")

That's how the album ends. A bit grim perhaps, but consider it like this. The composer Shostakovich (as Julian Barnes tells the story in Nothing to be Frightened Of) instructed the Beethoven Quartet to play the first movement of the String Quartet No. 15 in E flat minor "so that flies drop dead in mid-air." Radical Face, with found sounds and choral swells, wants to make the flies rise from the creaky floor.

If any of this seems to fit your storyline, I suggest listening to the entire album. Or, if you prefer quick resolution, go to his website now and listen to my two favorite tracks, "Glory" and "Welcome Home."

Topics: Arts
 

Jeremy Clive Huggins has a wife (Rachel), a son (Hiro), and a station wagon (Marcy). He likes movies, literary nonfiction, interior design, salvaging, and wordplay, but, to pay the bills, he teaches. He has adopted, as literary models, John McPhee, Thomas Lynch, and Walter Wangerin. He believes that Memphis is the BBQ capital of the world. Three of his heroes: Wade Bradshaw, Margie Haack, Will Shortz.

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