It’s been a while. Radical Face. What a lovely place to start. So…
Recently I had the pleasure of seeing the last gig of the Radical Face EU tour here in Munich. While the exquisite recorded versions of Ben Cooper’s songs machine ideas into an almost hand-hewn reality, the live versions are remarkable as well for a slew of other reasons. Taking into consideration Cooper is (mostly) a one-man operation when recording, one would assume that a live setting would be more than challenging. Naturally, variations in the natural fabric of the recorded songs occur and are welcomed. With the inclusion of a viola da gamba and bass on this tour, the *collection of Radical Face touring musicians (friends on and off the stage for years) were a marvel of good humor and song. And to be able to spin such beauty into this cover? It’s like voodoo.
Coinciding with the US/EU tours, late October/early November (depending upon where you call home) welcomed the release of Radical Face’s newest LP and 2nd installment of the Family Tree trilogy, The Branches. The aural equivalent of a tome of ancient photos and pages of handwritten tales of familial woes and joys, it is true to form and does what all of Cooper’s releases have done since Ghost way back in 2007. It evokes a sense of history and heartbreak, taking root at the base of one’s spine at first listen in an attempt to draw you into its biology. And succeeds.
As with The Roots, The Branches is largely folk-driven. That said, there is something less antiquated about it than its predecessor. More layered beats and reverberation; more head-nod inspiring moments. As with the evolution of generations within families, naturally and with the tides of time, life and everything in it becomes more modern, for good or evil. Change, however, is largely good.
“Holy Branches” pours the foundation for the rest of the record (with a sublime time signature, I might add):
“..everybody’s bones are just holy branches
cast from trees to cut patterns in the world
and in time we find some shelter,
spill our leaves, and then sleep in the earth.”
It is an intimate journey from there on out. Supposing such lofty observations can be said about most music, in the case of The Branches it comes with more grit and dissonance. While Cooper surely shapes his material with specific heartbeats in mind: a cast of characters (real or imagined), the genius of his songwriting is how it seamlessly can intermingle with the life of the listener. Case in point: my sister and I were sunburned and shoeless kids with simple heads and nothing real to lose. In my opinion, it is at this point in songwriting when the intention of artists in general go pear-shaped if they wish for the identical watercolor image to be impressed upon the brains of all their listeners. For all of his precision, Cooper’s imagery leaves a lot to the imagination.
The fascination with Radical Face/Ben Cooper as songwriter is that he manages to succinctly harness a listener’s emotions via specificity and generality…time after time after time. A mighty fine, magical balance, allowing the listener to become part of the musical equation. An amalgam of history and modernity where we are all players.
*Jack Ringca, Jeremiah Johnson, Josh Lee and Clay Doran (thank you all).
[Abby’s Road is a Knox Road feature published every other Friday.]