There is something to talent by association, even if it’s been turned on its head a bit by paid features on mediocre hip-hop tracks. As a rule of thumb, great artists don’t share their work with the less-than-great.
When Dave Gutter put together a project with Bensbeendead. (yeah, there’s a period at the end of that) called “Dead in the Gutter,” when Spose brought him on tracks, it was a blaring klaxon that something good was on the way.
Similarly, the hip-hop underground took notice when RAP Ferreira (a.k.a. Milo) and s.al (a.k.a. Safari Al) brought Pink Navel onboard their Ruby Yacht poet gang for the rightly acclaimed “37 Gems” album last year.
This month, both artists released significant new works that showed all of that promise was justified.
Of course, Pink Navel has an extensive back catalog (full disclosure: I wrote a 5,000-word bio to complement Navel’s release, which they’ve augmented with photos and graphic design), full of interesting projects and other noms de guerre, but “Giraffe Track” is a powerful work that feels like an artist coming into their own. It is messy, introspective, historical, and nostalgic in a way that often feels like being given a direct USB input for Navel’s brain stem.
Voices double up and counter each other. Synths and samples often feel at odds with steady snares and boom-bap beats. Organic ukulele lines get chopped up and regurgitated alongside thrumming bass and distortions. And through it all, Navel explores their childhood and evolution, accompanied by interviews with their mother, owner of one of the all-time great Massachusetts accents.
At one point they ask her what she’d say to everyone if she had one last thing to say. She’s embarrassed. Unsure. Finally she references an alterna-hero that’s an apt symbol for Navel’s style of alterna-rap, which can often veer into Chris-Moulton-in-the-Cambiata-style crooning, with lilting and descending finishes like any good emo band: “Don’t fee-ah, Undah-dog is hee-ah! And you know what, maybe we should all live by that!”
That’s at the beginning of “No Flash Photography,” where Navel is as loud and aggressive as you’ll hear them, a stream of consciousness that at one point finishes with this couplet: “Caught the crumbs last Wednesday from the freezer/ Squeezed the juice back to last year.”
It’s this kind of looking back, this reexamination of all that’s come before in microscopic detail, that infuses Bensbeendead.’s heartsick debut EP, “GARDENING.” Like Navel, Ben loves to play with his vocal delivery, moving from falsetto croon to sharp rap to a crisp tenor, and his constructions similarly merge all manner of beat-making and production. But where Navel turns up the dial on frenetic chaos, Bensbeendead. mostly evinces a smooth, calm demeanor. A resignation.
“THREE WORDS” (Ben titles in all caps) will have you reaching for Bon Iver’s first releases, a soothing, tortured experience of lost love. “I rip the pictures off the wall,” he sings over a head-nodding bass drum, “I wish some things went unsaid.” Trailing syllables echo into following verses. Sounds build and wash away.
Like Navel, though, Bensbeendead. makes sure you never get too comfortable. The cuts and pullbacks on “FOR WHEN YOU’RE LONELY” can sound like your CD is skipping (assuming you’re old enough to have had skipping CDs), and it’s hard not to intuit anger trying to break through resignation: “I hope today was the best day of your life/ And I hope you find a moment when all your anxiety subsides/ And I hope you never feel like you push nobody’s feelings aside/ And I pray you never feel like you’re the one who deserves to die.”
Except it feels like it’s taking everything in Ben’s power to believe the words coming out of his mouth.
While it’s certainly not new for rappers and digital artists to explore their feelings, these works feel like part of an evolutionary move forward, bringing together the goth and emo of in-your-feelings guitar bands with the playfulness and non-conformity of underground and indie hip-hop. They are transparent and open rather than constructed artifices designed for consumption. They are reflections of inner turmoil and uncertainty instead of projections of what a listener might be hoping for and a desire to please.
But there is also a hopefulness in both, a self-assuredness, that keeps these works from devolving into misery and depression. It is OK, we are implicitly assured, to be not OK. That’s a message that many of us might need to hear nowadays.
Sam Pfeifle can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
2 weeks, 5 songs
Plenty of high creativity in the offing right now:
• Spose, “Marcy Projects and the Infinite Sadness” — Billed as if Jay-Z’s seminal “Black Album” was produced by the Smashing Pumpkins, this tour de force of production takes Jay-Z’s vocals and layers them onto Smashing Pumpkins instrumental tracks to create an incredibly listenable package that is a worthy successor to Dangermouse’s early-Napster project “The Gray Album,” which mashed Jay-Z with the Beatles’ “White Album.” Available for download and streaming, we highly recommend a quick download before any kind of copyright takedowns happen. There’s a good reason this is ripping around the internet at a viral pace. The downtempo “Porcelina of the Vast Oceans” sitting below the open of “99 Problems” is sublime.
• Sparxsea, “Chariot” — Full of dancing string beds and swirling digitalization, this is a languid and layered crooner. Pretty stuff.
• Coyote Island, “Hello Silence” — Coyote’s fourth single, this piece continues the vibe of sunny, summery tunes with a bounce, which may be especially welcome as we look at our first snows out the window. Watch out for the bass rattling glasses off the table.
• Kurt Baker, “I Like Her a Lot” — A Maine ex-pat, now calling Spain his home base, Baker continues to fly the banner of straight-ahead rock ‘n’ roll, with driving guitars, vocals to the front, and choruses you can sing along with on the first listen. And all of it coming in under three minutes.
• Dominic Lavoie, “Skeletons at the Feast” — Look for a full review in this space next time, but in the meanwhile check out what may be the best music video produced in Portland in the past decade. Or ever.
— Sam Pfeifle