Like Elliott Smith’s From a Basement on the Hill, Jay Bennett’s final album Kicking at the Perfumed Air is unfinished. Yet it’s still relatively polished, and a cruel reminder of what we lost when Bennett died in May of 2009. One of this era’s greatest talents in any style of music, the ex-Wilco multi-instrumentalist could play pretty much any instrument and could write pretty much anything as well. And his songwriting was only getting stronger. We picked his previous, solo acoustic album Whatever Happened, I Apologize – issued a couple of months before his death by insurgent Chicago netlabel rockproper – as one of that year’s best. And over two years later, our review of that album remains one of the ten most popular articles in the history of this website. Despite a chronic back condition that required him to take the pain medication that ultimately killed him, this album is the reverse image of the previous one: upbeat, fun and often very funny, it puts to rest any claim that Bennett might have been a suicide.
There are a couple of stark acoustic tracks, just guitar and voice, that revert to the vibe of the previous album. When Heaven Held the World, a sad country ballad, ends on an unexpectedly hopeful note, while Footprints somewhat grimly recalls an affair with someone who “only left footprints on my heart…you were just her to take pictures.” There are also a couple of first-rate collaborations with Bennett’s longtime pal Edward Burch: Second-Last Call, a raucous country blues that paints a sarcastic, surreal barroom scene, and Twice a Year, a lament which despite its roughness has layers of piano and acoustic guitar that are absolutely exquisite. The title track of sorts is a cover of the Boomtown Rats’ classic Diamond Smiles, done as oldtime country with layers of acoustic guitars, piano bass and mandolin that only enhance the song’s brutal sarcasm: in this one the spoiled suicide girl grew up on a plantation. There’s a marvelous rumble after Bennett reminds that “love is for others but me it destroys,” and a LOL funny ending.
The best song here is Mirror Ball, a gorgeously lush, distantly Big Star influenced psychedelic pop ballad. It’s as good as anything Alex Chilton ever wrote, a bartender’s remembrance of a star he never knew. Hotel Song is another gorgeous one, a big towering ballad with watery Leslie-speaker guitar in the background, Bennett playing agile Stax/Volt leads and finally a pretty unhinged, icepick solo over Jason Sipe’s blistering, sustained power chords. There’s also a funky, Afrobeat-flavored number, a Dylanesque chamber-pop ballad, the bitter, rustic waltz Chamber Physics and a tribute to beer funnier than anyone else’s since Tom T. Hall did I Like Beer in 1975.
So why didn’t we review this when it came out over a year ago? At this point, it’s impossible to remember. Yes, we were remiss: this is our atonement. Download it for free from rockproper and be grateful they put this out.
Every day for the next few days, our top 666 songs of alltime countdown will get one step closer to #1. Around the 27th of this month, we’ll put up a whole bunch of them at once and keep you in suspense until we return with regular daily listings, review and so forth around the middle of October. For now, Thursday’s song is #307:
The Boomtown Rats – Diamond Smiles
Savage new wave/punk sarcasm from The Fine Art of Surfacing, 1979, the sarcastically glossy tale of a girl who had everything but did herself in. Sadly, the late Jay Bennett quoted a lyric from the song in the title of his final, unfinished album, Kicking at the Perfumed Air. The link above is the original video; here’s a live take.
You’ll notice that aside from the #1 spot here, these aren’t ranked in any kind of order: the difference, quality-wise between #1 and #50 is so slight as to make the idea of trying to sort out which might be “better” an exercise in futility. If you’re interested, here’s our 100 Best Songs of 2009 list.
1. The Brooklyn What – The Brooklyn What for Borough President
Like London Calling, it’s a diverse yet consistently ferocious, sometimes hilarious mix of styles imbued with punk energy and an edgy, quintessentially New York intensity. Time will probably judge this a classic.
2. Matthew Grimm & the Red Smear – The Ghost of Rock n Roll
The former Hangdogs frontman’s finest, funniest, most spot-on moment as a fearless, politically aware Americana rocker.
3. The Oxygen Ponies – Harmony Handgrenade
Dating from the waning days of the Bush regime, this is a murderously angry album about living under an enemy occupation: love in a time of choler?
4. The Beefstock Recipes anthology
5. Dan Bryk – Pop Psychology
Arguably the most insightful – and most brutally funny – album ever written about the music industry. The tunes are great too.
6. Balthrop, Alabama – Subway Songs
The sprawling Brooklyn band go deep into 60s noir with this brilliantly morbid, phantasmagorical ep.
7. Bobby Vacant & the Weary – Tear Back the Night
In the spirit of Dark Side of the Moon and Closer, this is a masterpiece of artsy existentialist rock. You’ll find several tracks on our Best Songs of 2009 list, including our #1 pick, Never Looking Back.
8. Botanica – americanundone
All the fearless fury and rage of a Botanica live show successfully captured at a show in Germany late last year.
9. Kelli Rae Powell – New Words for Old Lullabies
The amazingly lyrical oldtimey chanteuse alternates between sultry, devious romantic stylings and sheer unhinged anger.
10. McGinty & White Sing Selections from the McGinty & White Songbook
Ward White and Joe McGinty’s wickedly lyrical collaboration puts a fresh spin on retro 60s psychedelic pop.
11. The Church – Untitled #23
The Australian art-rock legends’ latest is yet another triumph of swirling atmospherics and intense lyricism.
12. Amy Allison – Sheffield Streets
Her best album – the New York song stylist has never been funnier or more acerbic. Includes a charming duet with Elvis Costello.
13. Steve Wynn and the Dragon Bridge Orchestra – Live in Brussels
A lush, majestic effort recorded with the stellar crew who played on his most recent studio album Crossing Dragon Bridge.
14. Elisa Flynn – Songs About Birds & Ghosts
Haunting and poignant but also cleverly amusing, the New York rocker has never written better or sung more affectingly.
15. The Jazz Funeral – s/t – free download
The best band ever to come out of Staten Island, New York, these janglerockers write excellent lyrics and have some very catchy Americana-inflected tunes.
16. Jay Bennett – Whatever Happened, I Apologize – free download
The last album the great Americana songwriter ever recorded, a harrowing chronicle of dissolution and despair.
17. Marty Willson-Piper – Nightjar
The Church’s iconic twelve-string guitarist’s finest work ever, a sweeping, majestic, multistylistic masterpiece.
18. Black Sea Hotel – s/t
New York’s own Bulgarian vocal choir’s debut is otherworldly, gorgeous and strikingly innovative.
19. Rupa & the April Fishes – Este Mundo
Latin meets noir cabaret meets acoustic gypsy punk on the Bay Area band’s sensational second album.
The tenor saxophonist/composer goes straight for wherever the melody is, usually in four minutes or less, with one of the world’s great rhythm sections, Gregg August on bass and Rudy Royston on drums. Time may also judge this a classic.
21. The New Collisions – s/t
All the fun and edgy intensity of vintage 80s new wave reinvented for the next decade by platinum-haired frontwoman Sarah Guild and her killer backing band.
22. Ten Pound Heads – s/t
The great long lost Blue Oyster Cult album: relentlessly dark, edgy, occasionally noir art-rock songs with layers of great guitar.
A hilariously woozy, fun romp through the songs from Sergeant Pepper, by the allstar NYC reggae crew who brought us Dub Side of the Moon and Radiodread.
24. Jeff Zentner – The Dying Days of Summer
Intense, memorable Nashville gothic songwriting from one of its finest practitioners.
25. Chris Eminizer – Twice the Animal
Cleverly lyrical art-rock songwriting with tinges of vintage Peter Gabriel from this first-rate New York rocker.
26. Tinariwen – Imidiwan: Companions
The Tuareg rockers’ most diverse, accessible album, as memorable as it is hypnotic.
27. Monika Jalili – Elan
Classic songs from Iran from the 60s and 70s, fondly and hauntingly delivered by the Iranian-American siren and her amazing backup band.
28. Ivo Papasov – Dance of the Falcon
The iconic Bulgarian clarinetist delivers maybe his most adrenalizing, intense album of gypsy music ever.
29. The Stagger Back Brass Band – s/t
The Spinal Tap of brass bands are as virtuosic and melodic as they are funny – which is a lot.
30. Eric Vloeimans‘ Fugimundi – Live at Yoshi’s
The Dutch trumpeter leads a trio through a particularly poignant, affecting mix of classically-tinged jazz.
31. The Asylum Street Spankers – What? And Give Up Show Business?
Recorded at the Barrow Street Theatre in New York last year, this is a boisterous, furious mix of hilarious skits and songs by the Dead Kennedys of the oldtimey scene.
32. Salaam – s/t
Sister-and-brother Dena and Amir El Saffar’s richly memorable, haunting seventh album of Middle Eastern instrumentals and ballads.
33. Fishtank Ensemble – Samurai over Serbia
Their shtick is that they add an Asian tinge to gypsy music, giving it an especially wild edge. The singing saw work on the album is pretty amazing too.
An eerily glimmering, suspensefully minimalist masterpiece by the baritone sax player and pianist, recorded in a sonically exquisite old church earlier this year.
35. The Silk Road Ensemble – Off the Map
Their first one without Yo-yo Ma is also their most adventurous mix of Asian and Middle Eastern-themed compositions (by Osvaldo Golijov, Angel Lam, Evan Ziporyn and others), played by an allstar cast including Kayhan Kalhor, string quartet Brooklyn Rider, pipa pioneer Wu Man and a cast of dozens.
36. Linda Draper – Bridge and Tunnel
The NYC songwriter’s most straightforward, catchy yet also maybe her most lyrically edgy album yet – and she has several.
37. Darren Gaines and the Key Party – My Blacks Don’t Match
Wry, Tom Waits-inflected noir songs by this excellent NYC crew.
38. Love Camp 7 – Union Garage
A deliciously jangly followup to their classic 2007 album Sometimes Always Never.
39. The Komeda Project – Requiem
The New York jazz crew’s second collection of works by the Roman Polanski collaborator who died tragically in the 1960s is brooding, morbid, cinematic and Mingus-esque.
40. Si Para Usted Vol. 2 – The Funky Beats of Revolutionary Cuba
Like the Roots of Chicha series, Waxing Deep’s second devious, danceable collection of genre-hopping obscure Latin funk from 1970s Cuba onward is packed with obscure gems.
41. Huun Huur Tu and Carmen Rizzo – Eternal
Ominous, windswept, atmospheric North Asian ambience produced with stately, understated power.
42. The Moonlighters – Enchanted
Another great album: gorgeous harmonies from Bliss Blood and Cindy Ball, charming retro 20s songwriting and incisive steel guitar from NYC’s best oldtimey band.
43. Minamo – Kuroi Kawa/Black River
Pianist Satoko Fujii and violinist Carla Kihlstedt share a telepathic chemistry in duo soundscapes ranging from clever and playful to downright macabre.
44. Robin O’Brien – The Apple in Man
The multistylistic chanteuse, legendary in the cassette underground, gets her haunting, intense, otherworldly vocals set to smart, terse new arrangements from dreampop to 70s style Britfolk to trance.
45. Devi – Get Free
Ferociously smart pychedelic power trio rock with one of the most interesting lead guitarists out there right now.
46. Obits – I Blame You
Dark, catchy, propulsive retro 60s garage rock with echoes of the Stooges and early Pink Floyd by this inspired Brooklyn band.
47. HuDost – Trapeze
Sweeping, sometimes hypnotic, artsy songs that move from Americana to gypsy to goth, with frontwoman Moksha Sommer’s graceful vocals.
48. Lenny Molotov – Illuminated Blues
Hauntingly visionary, provocative, politically aware songs set to gorgeously rustic, late 1920s blues, swing and hillbilly arrangements by the great Americana guitarist.
49. Chang Jui-Chuan – Exodus: Retrospective and Prospective 1999-2009
Fearless conscious bilingual hip-hop (in Taiwanese and English) from this international star.
50. Les Triaboliques – rivermudtwilight
A trio of old British punks – Justin Adams, Ben Mandelson and Lu Edmonds – combine to create a masterpiece of desert-inspired duskcore.
Here’s this week’s hit parade! This is how we do every Tuesday:
1. Jay Bennett – I’ll Decorate My Love
Opening salvo on the former Wilco multi-instrumentalist’s bitter, brooding new solo cd (available for free download here).
2. Edison Woods – Wind Song
A new one from the lush, atmospheric, often haunting chamber-rock group — minimalist, stark, haunting, with especially nice vocals from composer Julia Frodahl. Eventually this will be a part of a marvelous album called the Wishbook Singles.
3. Marissa Nadler – Mexican Summer
Ethereal noir shoegaze song from the haunting Boston chanteuse. She’s at Joe’s Pub on 3/4 at 9:30
4. Thalia Zedek – Hell Is In Hello
Another sweet intense guitar maelstrom from the former Come frontwoman.
5. The New Familiars – The Storm
Hypnotic delta blues gone grasscore – wild stuff. They’re at Public Assembly on 3/14.
6. The Mess Around – Drunken Words
“Bullshit I can’t? Bullshit, I care?” Whatever. Play this as loud as you can without going deaf or, if you’re at work, without getting fired. They’re at the Charleston on 3/20.
7. The Brooklyn What – Sunbeam Sunscreen
It wouldn’t be a Top Ten without a Brooklyn What song, would it. This is a tasty live version. They’re at Don Pedro’s on 3/5 at 10.
8. The Bombers – One Foot in the Grave
Sonic Youth meets Ted Leo.
9. Elextra – Afro Punk
Spooky surf dub en Espanol. They’re at Ace of Clubs on 3/11
10. Wet Coma – Song About Revenge
AC/DC parody, predictable but funny. They’re also at Ace of Clubs on 3/18 at 8.
As you probably already know, the old American Top 40 had about as much to do with actual popularity and record sales as…well…as much as this page does. Nothing at all, in fact. This is just another way for us to spread the word about some of the best under-the-radar stuff out there.
1. Jay Bennett – The Engines Are Idle
This big, vicious, 100% acoustic ballad is the centerpiece of the former Wilco multi-instrumentalist’s brilliant new cd Whatever Happened, I Apologize.
2. Soil & “Pimp” Sessions – Storm
Wild stuff by the Japanese inventors of the “death jazz” genre (actually the most live sound you could ever want to hear, right from the wall of horns that hits you upside the head as the song opens). From their upcoming cd Planet Pimp, scheduled for release on Koch on 2/24.
3. Our Vision – The Game
A big, sweeping, gorgeous janglerock anthem. Sounds a lot like the Church! They’re at Ace of Clubs on 4/3
4. The Mad Dukes – Gone Gone Gone
Hauntingly rustic Steve Earle-esque murder ballad with a trick ending, a remake of the version that first appeared on Kim Simpson’s 1996 Midnight Apparitions cd.
5. Julia Haltigan & the Hooligans – All I Can Think of Is You
Really cool, noirish jazzy Americana. Click on this and then try tuning out. You can’t. She’s at 11th St. Bar on 2/24 at 10.
6. The Great Deceivers – Starless
7. Ten Pound Heads – Paint Manhattan Black
A pop song as Iron Maiden or King’s X might have done it – fast new wave bassline, organ in the background. Good stuff.
8. Destroy All Monsters – Party Girl
Yeah, we’ve been surfing youtube. This is a golden oldie, Ron Asheton’s late 70s band with Detroit cult vocalist Niagara. She looks great and the footage of Ron’s characteristic wailing solos is choice. Turn it up.
9. The Brooklyn What – Soviet Guns
Wouldn’t be a Top Ten without a Brooklyn What song, right? And it makes a great segue with Ron Asheton. This is a characteristically snarling live take from the Brooklyn Lyceum show last year that made our Top 20 shows of 2008 list.
10. Rocketship Park – Birthdaydeathwish
The beautiful lushness of the string section and the soaring melody of this big ballad makes you forget about the flat, weak, stereotypical indie vocals. They’re at Monkey Town on 2/21 at 10:30 PM with the smartly amusing Balthrop Alabama.
What a harrowing way to start the new year. This cd hits you with a gale force, bitter, brutal and direct. Even if you try to get out of the way, Jay Bennett – the talented multi-instrumentalist who for all intents and purposes was Wilco until he left the band and Jeff Tweedy decided to become Brian Wilson – will still knock the wind out of you. Most of this cd – Bennett’s fourth solo album – is just voice and acoustic guitar, occasionally embellished with organ and bass that are so good that you’re left wanting more. While the songs on this album scream out for a full band to flesh them out, even if this is as far as they ever get, that’s fine: they still pack a wallop. Stylistically, Bennett evokes Matt Keating or Richard Buckner in particularly energetic mode: this is smart, terse, gorgeously melodic Americana rock with equally smart, tersely unwinding lyrics. It’s a concept album about a relationship gone awry, spectacularly: this one was doomed right from the start, and if Bennett is to be taken at face value, it’s something of a miracle he got out alive.
The cd starts with a road song, just a bit of ominous foreshadowing in the same vein as the Wilco classic Far, Far Away (from the Being There cd), followed by the matter-of-fact, dismissive I Don’t Have the Time. Bennett knows there’s drama coming down the line and he wants no part of it. “I don’t have the good looks, but I know yours won’t last,” he caustically tells the woman. With the next cut, I’ll Decorate My Love, the genie’s out of the bottle, Pandora’s out of the box and all hell breaks loose, setting the tone for the rest of the cd:
There will be no profit in protection
Even when you’re walking miles in the rain
I will curse the day I met you
And you will curse the day I lost control
And there will be no reward for your actions
Even when you’re trying to save your lover’s soul…
You were down before me
And the issues are clouded and hang in the air
The best part of the story is the part that you missed…
The best part of the record is the part where it skips
And she lost the lyrics and the jacket is ripped…
Cos it’s ageless and timeless but beauty must fade
And you looked so much better when the picture was made
The pace picks up and emotions reach a fever pitch on How Dull They Make the Razor: Bennett wants to wait this one out, but he ends up getting dragged in anyway:
It don’t matter how dull they make the razor
You won’t feel it when you’re dead
On the next track, Without the Benefit of Sight, Bennett likens himself to a block of ice on a Chicago rooftop in early spring, loosened just enough to become deadly. Exasperation and despair take over center stage:
If you want to weigh me down there’s just one layer left
I’ve been repainted so many times it’s anybody’s guess
And that’s pretty much where it’s left. Bennett muses on how Hank Williams might have written this story, then throws up his hands and lets that work as a smokescreen: he’s through with trying to cut through the smoldering underbrush, and the songs follow suit. “I lost my best friend last night, I’m working on number two/Won’t you give me a chance cause your chances are through,” he warns on the stark, mandolin-spiced ballad Talk and Talk and Talk. The cd ends with a lament for the world as a whole – the relationship seems to be a microcosm of something far worse – and then with the understatement of Little Blue Pills, “that don’t make you ill – someday they will.”
Intensely personal yet not the least bit self-absorbed, this is the best thing Bennett’s ever done. And the best thing about it is that the cd is absolutely free: Bennett is giving it away as a free download at rockproper.com, click here and then hang on, this is not exactly easy listening.