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Destined: Sean Booth

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Daniel Levin Becker sheds some light on the all-but-total obscurity of Canadian troubadour Sean Booth.

Destined: Sean Booth

  • Download Fuel from Carbon

Sean Booth shares a name with one half of the British beat-fuckery duo Autechre, and then the similarity ends. The two are polar opposites, actually, if you think about it in terms of audible humanity: whereas the shifty mechanisms of Autechre's hyperstructured cacophony could only really be a moving experience to a unique breed of sociopath, it's impossible not to find some emotion in the other Booth's rusty voice, rusty guitar and rusty lyrics.

Carbon, our man's six-song debut, slated for eventual release on Chicago's nascent Velocirecords, is thick with grizzled personality and delicate imprecision, but is doubly intriguing in its inscrutably agèd quality. Booth rasps about felling trees and laying down weapons with the provincial simplicity of a wise fieldhand or a postbellum confederate soldier, such that most of the time it feels nearly impossible to tell just who he is.

Whoever he does sound like, it's decidedly not what he turns out to be, a thirty-year-old from Moncton, a mid-sized town in New Brunswick with a chocolate river (the Petiticodiac, so called because it's magical or really muddy, depending on your source) and apparently not a great deal else. He is just as friendly as you only half-expect from his songs, and speaks with earnest excitement and that delightfully unpredictable Canadian spin on the [ou] diphthong. "I'm a working man," he says of his day job as a restaurant cook, "that's how I support my habits." ("Habits, plural," he adds gleefully.) He speaks highly of his friends as talented musicians and good people: Scott Carson, for example, who offered to record Carbon for a nominal fee as an excuse to perfect his ProTools skills, is not only a mean accordion and trumpet player, but a phenomenal painter and all-around Renaissance man. But Booth discusses the music that spoke to him growing up with almost the exact same intimate reverence, as though he's been going bowling with Daniel Lanois for years, as though he went to high school with Ry Cooder. He might as well have, one supposes, as intently as he channels his influences and as un-cynically as he believes in his medium. "Music is the most powerful medicine we have," he says, "a healing, solidifying force that brings people together. I know that sounds kind of new-agey, but I think it's true."

As for Booth himself, he took up his sister's neglected guitar over twenty years ago, restrung it to be left-handed shortly afterwards, and has been playing in some fashion since, whether doing session work with friends like Matt d'Astous and Alex Madsen, or supporting them live locally, or sitting at home on his days off with his trusty steel guitar. Carbon is his first pass at committing his own work to tape, the conclusion of a few years spent teaching himself the other instruments heard on it (bass and banjo), and getting used to 8-track recording. "I hadn't really performed much of my solo stuff before," he says, "but then I decided, 'fuck it, I gotta do this.'"

So last fall, enlisting Carson and drummer Gilles Gaudet, Booth made Carbon in his bedroom in a matter of days. It's rough all around – the tape hiss is noisy, the drum tracks are all loops, at one point during "Avedya" you can hear something fall to the floor. It's not modern on the inside either, though, and that's what works. Sam Beam might not have lost much when he made the second Iron & Wine album in a real studio, but even The Creek Drank The Cradle wasn't as elementally tied up in its primitivity as this is.

Carbon sounds literally more like a field recording than a bedroom recording (in the sense that it calls to mind an 8-track and lots of wheat). Twangs of electric guitar sprout up like weeds, growing wildly over old rows of steel guitar, reined in by beautifully sinister basslines and delicate drums. Each song's complexity is in fact remarkable; the overdubs and echoes in Booth's guitar work, akin to the ruralized stages of Chris Brokaw or Papa M, feel effortless, but there's always more going on than is apparent. And then atop it all Booth sings about trees and fields and drainage ditches, his husky voice lurching skyward to mimic the whims of the guitar, or vice versa. It's deeply soulful in a hardened way, like Tom Waits turned transcendental, and it feels neither gimmicky nor embarrassing.

Though the presence of closer influences like Cooder, Chris Whitley, and Red Red Meat are conspicuous enough, much of the ear-catching guitar work on the record comes from Booth's recent forays into fingerstyle playing, a staple of African artists and Malian bluesmen, as well as East Indian techniques. "It's kind of an homage to blues music," he explains. "I'm more into ethnic music than blues, but blues has its roots in those musics, so I try to transpose that to that form. I've tried many things out – prog rock, ambient, techno – but this felt the most comfortable. It came from performing live, where I found I was inclined toward more bluesy styles. It fits like a glove when I play slide guitar; it was never awkward when I decided to do that kind of thing." Indeed, it's not awkward when he does it on Carbon, just sonically fascinating and ineffably different.

Still, as far-reaching as its influences may be, the content of the record remains evidently close to home. The first song, "Resin," finds Booth singing about lilacs over a wiry sprawl of twangs and echoes until everything coalesces in an oddly stately 7/4 beat. "It's for my mum," he says, barely sheepishly. "It's about growing up in the family and enduring hardship. The allusion to resin is the past, what sticks to you." So it goes for the other songs, in which he fills out the tone set by his untamed guitars with his old troubadour's voice and earthen images. He intones "Red Heart" like an age-old spiritual and works himself into a little frenzy on the unassumingly gorgeous closer "Avedya," but even his picking on the instrumental "Palomino" is eloquent in its own way. The elemental outlook of the songs extends all the way to the periphery as well: the titular reference to carbon, a filter and a fuel; the album's cover, which shows a hand grasping a handful of coal. "It's also about trying to create something and compress it into a diamond," he reasons. "The frustration of creating."

Whether the intrinsic worth of Booth's creation makes itself known to the world from his small town with its chocolate river remains to be seen, but things appear to be in the works (look out, the other Sean Booth). As it stands Carbon is set for a small-scale domestic release this spring, and Booth is set to record another five- or six-song album in Toronto next month. At the very least he hopes to tour in the near future, one way or another. "I'm pretty much a man of limited means at this point," he says apologetically. "It's a question of getting the right people together. The grant programs aren't really that strong right now; you kind of have to have a direction in music that's marketable."

With any luck the market will come around before Booth has to adulterate his work, but you get the feeling that he'd be happy playing music for people no matter what. "There's no feeling in the world like playing live, when it's right," he says. "Just creating and sharing that seems to me a pretty valid way to live, like a vocation." He pauses, ever the son of the soil, and adds, "Like gardening."

By Daniel Levin Becker

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