Album Review: Benjamin Russell - "Rockhill"

 Review by Mark Laffin

The ideal of the singer/songwriter has come a long way in the past decade or so. It used to be that a singer/songwriter type would be someone self-accompanied with a guitar or piano in a modestly attended cafe or bar, strumming out folk songs and/or personally written tales of love, betrayal, life on the road, what have you. The mold has pretty much been broken wide open in recent years. Artists such as Badly Drawn Boy and Sufjan Stevens, have raised the bar as far as what constitutes a true singer/songwriter. These artists have proven able to create expansively produced soundscapes while eschewing the band format altogether. And why not? What better way to create the sound that’s inside your head, than to just do it all yourself? I am an ardent fan of using the standard singer/songwriter formula as a basic template, but then taking it to another level with the use of other instruments and technology. I’m really all in favour of the shattering of musical paradigms.

This is the type of record we get with Rockhill from Saskatoon’s Benjamin Russell. I was genuinely excited to listen to this album. Looking at Russell’s website, it appears this album was created as a grand conceptual piece with a strong thematic element to it. It’s explained that he’s been making music since the punk era of the late 70‘s, and his new record focuses on a specific time period in which he had written a number of songs that had been cast aside until now. Rockhill, as it happens, represents the name of the mountain secluded hideaway home in which some of these songs were created. The concept tellingly lies in the significance of this particular time period in which Russell had apparently cast off radio altogether, and secluded himself into his own world to reinvent himself as an artist. This all truly piqued my interest. I had this idea in my head of a grand opus that would transcend all musical boundaries and expectations. I also personally identified with the idea of coming from a punk rock background, and then culminating a lifetime of musical awakening into a single piece of work as a solo artist. Also, the intimidating 17 song track listing does give a hint of epic grandiosity. I figured that any kind of independent artist with the balls to include 17 songs on an album in this day and age, must really have something to say.



Well...


First of all, Don’t let the name fool you. There is nary a hint of rock to be found here. Be that as it may, I had high hopes coming in. The first track, “Starved” opens with a driving acoustic guitar riff propelled by a pulsing electronic beat. Then a sample of discordant electric guitar screams across the mix. Not a bad start. I start expecting some lush, electro-pop type sounds layering across Russell’s guitar and crooning, baritone voice. This seemed promising. Unfortunately, what ends up coming across is all rather cold and bleak. The overall sound of the record is somewhat mechanical, and I find myself trying much too hard to be drawn in. There are some vague melodies buried in the mix, but are unremarkable and immediately forgettable. Speaking from an artistic point of view, it’s not absolutely necessary for songs to include engaging hooks or melodies. However, without such elements, there needs to be something else to absorb the listener. Bands such as Mogwai or Sigur Ros for example, rely solely on atmosphere and subtle musical dynamics with no obvious melodic components, which still result in a genuinely fulfilling listening experience. Russell employs many different sonic devices here, but despite the interesting host of varied sounds, the mediocre songwriting just doesn’t allow it to add up to anything. Imagine having all the right measures of the right ingredients to bake the perfect cake, but then handing them over to you 5 year old niece to mix them and bake in her Easy-Bake oven.


In fairness, this record duly showcases Russell’s musical competency, with an impressive display of staccato, claw hammer style of guitar playing, redolent of Harvest -era Neil Young. His voice is smooth and tuneful, and is graciously evocative of Ian McCulloch from Echo & The Bunnymen. There are also some brief moments of salvation on here. The song “Garden” caught my attention with its warm, rustic harmony, complete with pedal steel and a carefully understated country twang. Also, parts of “Deep Magic” sound like it could have been produced by the Dust Brothers. Disappointingly, most of the rest of the album ranges from uninspired to boring. “Magic”, (not to be confused with the aforementioned, “Deep Magic”) almost sounds like the theme song for a cheesy, 70’s sitcom, while “Connection” is a bona fide soft-jazz affair which has me waiting for Kenny G to burst in with a smooth, soprano sax solo. Any last ditch attempts to win me over were severely defeated with the last track, “Artist” which shamelessly uses the lyric, “God’s an artist, I can tell when I look at you”. Yikes. From a technical perspective, the album is very well produced. The recording has a very overall professional sound that almost serves as a detriment to any hope for some kind of tangible, human quality to the songs.


Russell has described himself as “Trans-Genre”. This is a fair enough claim, with the fusion of the many sounds used here. However, I would be more inclined to use the term “No-Genre”. Rather than having tastefully exploited a number of musical genres to cultivate his own sound, what I hear is an evasion of any kind of commitment to a style, and the result has the album falling into a safe void somewhere between genres. It feels like the record tries very hard to be eclectic and interesting, but in turn becomes an erratic, incohesive, overwrought, hour long bore. Yes, an hour long. In the post-internet consumerism era of the music industry, an album clocking in at a full hour is disparagingly imposing and presumptuous. I do admire and respect Russell’s artistic ambitions and work ethic, and I get the impression there were many honourable intentions put into this piece of work. It feels like it all does make some kind of sense to him, and holds some deep context to Russell personally, but I think the true aesthetic of what he was aiming for here, is going to be lost on most of us.

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