The latest of my installments of procrastinating like a professional procrastinator! It was back on 13th December that Ella and I headed to the excellent Portland Arms in Cambridge for B-Sydes‘ album launch gig, which is where I first picked up said album – Self-Sabotage – along with a bonus EP. It was an awesome night, and a great first chance to see Ben in as a frontman to a band rather than a solo acoustic guy.
It’s funny really – Ben is part of a pantheon of solo-acoustic performers wot have bands, Gaz Brookfield, Nick Parker, and Jake Martin – all artists I encountered on their own but translate rather brilliantly to a full band setting (although bastard-timing has so far prevented me seeing Jake in this guise). After the gig I grabbed an envelope from Ben before hitting the road, as ever frustrated modern cars don’t have CD players any more – but eventually getting to rip it to my phone, and get stuck in.
That said, there’s a few songs here that have been on his set list for a while so felt like familar friends, and of course fresh in the mind was the launch gig which showcased a number of the songs here. It’s a proper triumph – the kind of clever lyrics and catchy melodies you’d expect from Ben, drenched in personal meaning much of which might go over my head – but moments of brutal exposure that really does encapsulate the most honest of art.
It opens with Witching Hour, with an atmospheric introduction the title demands – guitar and fiddle interweave without lyrics, giving a haunting lead in to bouncy guitar and drums of Crutches backed by some singalong-ready Whoa ohs – the lyrics are self-depreciatingly autobiographical, instruments fade out with percussion remaining, then back in again – it’s a pacey start after the ethereal introduction.
Good Times starts with palm-muted guitar and vocals before the rest of the band kicks in. It’s a bit pessimistic sounding until the chorus kicks in – it’s a great message, sure – things might be a bit grim (bear in mind the first time I heard this song was the day after the election!), but there’s always good times if you care to look for them, and they usually involve taking in a bit of live music! Another singalong (over a banjo track) opportunity presents itself here too!
This Was My City Once has become a staple of live sets for a while so it was almost a surprise to realise it hadn’t already made it onto a recording! Fleshed out with violin and band backing doesn’t mask any of its potency, it’s a proper anthem. It might seem odd documenting a relationship ending and reclaiming a place after that, but I can kind of understand that – and if you’ve seen it live you’ll know there’s a Whoa-oh-oh singalong opportunity which shouldn’t be passed up. It translates bloody well to a full band track.
All at Sea has a heavy start, all electric guitars and empassioned vocals. There’s some tricksy pace-changes in here too to flummox the singer-alonger in the car I’ve found (doesn’t take much in my case!). I really like the bass-chugging middle-eight (maybe that’s what it is) repeating the line “I tried my best but I can see that you were never really listening to me” before it eventually builds to a tumultuous climax before dropping out into a gentle guitar-picked end.
Safe and Sound is back to acoustic guitar-led and husky vocals – ruminating on our tendencies to play down pitfalls we encounter, large or small. Violins joins and the vocals dance around some of the cleverest lyrics on the album – a really sad song, it makes you sad for the person singing it but also for yourself a little as you recognise the behaviours it paints through its melody and words. Really moving.
Epiphanies changes the mood with some chugging electric guitar, bass and drums with drawn out vocals laid over. A proper rock number, I’m trying to do that dangerous thing of thinking of what it reminds me of because it definitely evokes something – maybe a hint of Placebo in there somewhere, but there’s something else that’s evading me. I really like it, despite it painting quite a bleak picture in my head at least (I am a grumpy sod at heart).
Propaganda is similarly electric driven by more upbeat immediately – guitar solo work over chugging chords, drums and bass leads into the vocals. The subject probably isn’t as upbeat as the music – it speaks of the isolation probably with modern politics, with smears, with lies, with the futility in trying to rail against it, of the rush to the kind of horrible ‘I’m all right, Jack’ individualism we seem to be seeing. Ultimately rather than war, going to the pub probably is the more viable solution. There’s a drum solo in here (is it a solo if there’s still vocals? Drum duet? Either way – it rocks!).
The acoustic guitar is back for 5 Minutes. Once the vocals kick in the percussion kicks in with a basic beat then the bass kicks in before the chorus unleashes into a full on assault followed with a guitar solo. Lyrically this track gives the album its title, it’s a combination of a lament and celebration of a seeming inability to make sensible life-decisions I think (or maybe what are perceived sensible life-decisions). Sometimes you do have to trade-off what the world sees as sensible and what’s good for your soul.
Hobbies starts with acoustic guitar work and gentle vocals – this is a proper heart-wrencher. Having seen a dear friend go through a loved one going missing, the thought processes documented here are all too familiar and incredibly poignant – only picked out more with the sorrowful guitar and guitar harmonics during a brief instrumental section. I don’t know the back story behind this, but it makes me just want to give Ben a big hug. I will next time I see him.
Quicksand brings the album to a close – staccatoed percussion (if that’s a thing) with typical B-Sydes cleverness going a long way up the fret board. It’s almost like Ben’s duetting with himself with the two different vocal styles – eventually the rest of the band kicks in building the song into quite a wall of sound. As the track builds and builds it drops down to a chant of “I’m stood here waiting. Wait, is this quicksand? Hoping that you’ll pull me out” before the instrumentation drops out to a clap-track and the odd guitar pluck. An epic finale to cap off a superb album.
Variety of pace and musical layers – and all underpinned with personal heartfelt and clever lyrics. Then there’s the matter of the cheeky bonus EP that I wasn’t expecting but might’ve been a perk for pre-ordering the album (I should really pay more attention to these things!).
It’s called City, Sea and Mountains which makes a lot of sense – as we’ve three tracks on here – all acoustic renderings, two of which feature in the previous verbal diarrhoea I’ve blurted out above – This was my City once gets the more familiar treatment for anyone who’s seen Ben live over the last couple of years, and All at Sea makes for an interesting translation into just a stripped back acoustic track – it works really well.
Which leaves – to complete the title – Mountains – which is an excellent cover of Jake Martin’s Mountains. This works really well with a bit of accompanying banjo. Jake’s a really clever song-writer too, and the fusion of this and B-Sydes’ interpretation is quite intoxicating (not to mention the surprise ending which I won’t spoil, but it’s awesome!). All in all, I’m very happy with my musical haul from nearly a month ago.
If you’d like to avail yourself of this musical feast then you can do so here. You really oughta. It’s only £7 for a digital download or a tenner for a CD!