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Ben + Vesper - All This Could Kill You

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Artist: Ben + Vesper

Album: All This Could Kill You

Label: Sounds Familyre

Review date: May. 22, 2007

There must be a reason that people don't typically write pop songs about the minutia of family life... about disappointing reporting cards and maxed-out charge cards, about big moments like expecting a child and smaller ones like going to the beach. Maybe it's because pop music, like all arts, is in some measure an escape valve, a way to pretend that we are still romantic and dangerous and sexually viable, even when all the evidence suggests otherwise. If the music we listen to is quotidian as Monday supper, then what's the point? Why not spend the evening balancing the checkbook again?

The answer, I think, supplied fairly convincingly by Ben + Vesper, is that there's beauty in the mundane, drama in the daily round of responsibilities. Like a good clutch of kitchen sink dramatists, these two songwriters are not asking you to suspend disbelief or identify with dissolute strangers or even imagine faraway places. They want you to know about the ordinary events that mark their days, and they suspect that you can relate to them, no matter how hip you are.

Ben + Vesper are, on the surface of things, almost unbearably ordinary. They are a married couple with two small children. They live in a small house in New Jersey. Ben travels to the city each day to work in the art business, and has a sideline hand-painting clothing. Vesper is working on a children's book, and three nights a week, she teaches child-birthing classes. They go to church. It would all be so surpassingly run-of-the-mill if they did not also create rather lovely music... about work and kids and relationships and childbirth. Write about what you know, and all that.

Musically, the songs are just as quiet and unassuming as the subject matter, built out of soft acoustic guitar parts, two voices in unison, trilling portable organs (the kind you'd find in a small suburban church) and rumbling distant bass. They're the sort of songs that sidle into your listening space, jostling you to get your attention in only the friendliest sort of way, with clever phrases and subtle musical flourishes. (My favorite lyric comes in "The Stomach" when Ben bemoans the "heavy hands of the multitaskers' union"; I'd tell you more about why this appeals to me, but I'm on a conference call while I write this and also eating lunch.)

As you might guess from their label affiliation, Ben + Vesper are part of the extended Danielson Famile circle, aligned with that crew in gentle, positive spirituality but, unfortunately, not in rhythmic urgency. That they're helped along by Danielson fellow travelers - Daniel Smith producing and sitting on guitar, Elin Smith singing, Sufjan Stevens playing banjo - is a modest elaboration, not a radical reimagining, of their sound. The difference? Where Danielson's records celebrate exuberant joys of the spirit, Ben + Vesper are more homely, comfortable affairs. You can't imagine either one of them speaking in tongues or rolling around on the floor in religious ecstasy. (And to be fair, no one's ever caught Daniel Smith doing those things either, though he sometimes sounds like he might.) Still there's a glow of spiritual certainty in lovely dark-toned songs like "Force Field" and "Eight Months," alongside a wry secular self-awareness in "An Honest Bluff." Nothing is pushed and nothing, to be negative, is overwhelmingly exciting.

Still there must be a place for quiet reflection, for apprehension of the spiritual underpinnings of daily life. Rock music may not be exactly that place, but then All This Could Kill You isn't really rock music. It's a quiet interval, charged with immanence, between loads of laundry and picnics in the park. It says, this is what we have. Look at it. It isn't so bad. You don't have to be Christian, or married or parents or anything at all, really, to buy into that.

By Jennifer Kelly

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