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Jonathan Bentley - Estuary

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Artist: Jonathan Bentley

Album: Estuary

Label: MayApple

Review date: Sep. 1, 2004

Jonathan Bentley’s Estuary was billed as a historical detour, a chance to see what rock music might have been like if bands hadn’t decided in favor of drummers and against clarinet players, and if producers hadn’t fallen in love with distortion and the electric guitar. A radical album in the literal sense, if a return to “roots music” can literally be called “radical” without mixing metaphors. Bentley does use some obvious genre precedents, such as bluegrass and folk. Other features of the album, however, are decidedly contemporary. He borrows the reliable verse-chorus-verse-bride-chorus structure from rock, and plumbs the underground for highbrow lyrics, spoken in true indie rock style by unabashedly self-possessed narrators.

He doesn’t completely dispense with history but he's careful to pick his spots; his real achievement is that he writes these kind of rustic songs without sounding like he’s filtering his influences through their previous revivals. Some bands working in alt-country, for instance, sound as though they can trace their lineage only as far back as the Meat Puppets, or – maybe – the Flying Burrito Brothers. (The historical connections of the psych-folk revival are a topic for another story altogether.) Not necessarily a bad thing, of course, but in alt-country as in the other typically American genres, there’s quite a bit of creative inspiration to be found from a working knowledge of the original source material.

Bentley’s credited as the primary songwriter, but Estuary sounds like a generously collaborative effort. The album was produced with a single microphone and a two-track recorder over the course of two days in the summer of 2003 in a farmhouse just east of Springfield, Missouri. Bentley’s vocals take the lead on most tracks but the instrumentalists have featured moments, whether it’s Molly Healey and Danielle Meinhardt’s violins on “The War for Water,” or Randy Bearden’s clarinet on “My Dear.” Rather than using orchestral instruments for texture, or, worse yet, to play on the emotions (rock and folk bands with string sections have done nothing to shatter the image of the violin as the weepiest instrument) Bentley and company compose multiple figures for each instrument, largely reducing the guitar to rhythm work.

This show of faith in the band’s abilities pays dividends. Such collaboration probably explains why the music sidesteps most of the stylistic excesses of Americana: There’s nothing dark, or weepy, or superficially pretty about the material recorded here. The best songs, like “Professionals,” “The War For Water,” and the closing “Make the Baby Shake,” strive for low-key charm rather than overpowering affection. And if the weakest material sounds entirely too goofy – the kind of thing I might hear at a farmer’s market back home in Iowa – it’s not so calculated as to be unforgivable.

Questions about authenticity are inevitable, I guess, since authenticity is the sine qua non of American music and, by Jove, we won’t tolerate anyone fooling with our folk traditions. Recording in Springfield gives everybody here some leeway, since, supposedly, the heartland is a little less cutting edge and a little less prone to exploitation. That’s not really true, though: see Thomas Frank’s discussion of Wichita’s finest indie rock band, the Embarrassment, if you still don’t know that everyone has access to the same cultural influences. Consequently, I don’t know whether this was self-consciously designed as art, but I can say that it’s not the slightest bit hip. Which makes it really cool.

By Tom Zimpleman

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