Mirepoix (pronounced “meer-pwah”), for those who don’t know, is a French concoction of aromatics, namely carrots, celery, and onions, primarily used to flavor stocks, soups, and sauces. While working on this album, Ben Weaver was employed at a restaurant, making mirepoix all day, his hands reeking of it perpetually. His goal was to make a highly personal record, and the smell became part of him.
He’s a published poet, and these songs are essentially personal poetry set to the sparsest music you can imagine. The New York Times compared Weaver to the Band and Tom Waits, but on Mirepoix & Smoke, he comes across as a young Leonard Cohen dabbling in Americana. I love Cohen, and I love the not-too-specific genre they call Americana, but this album is, frankly, terrible, and was a chore to listen to, and continues to be a chore as I write this up. Thank God or [insert deity] there are only nine tracks.
Weaver’s modus operandi is to sing like a baritone Matt Keating while lazily plucking a banjo or acoustic guitar, sometimes utilizing Erica Froman from Anathallo to provide off-key backup vocals and/or piano, and once or twice adding upright bass and hushed drums. The songs were recorded live, or in two takes, by Neil Strauch, who has collaborated with Bonnie “Prince” Billy and Iron & Wine (makes sense).
The excursion begins with “Grass Doe”, which is more melodically sound than most tracks here, but it contains a strong penchant for trite lyrics and tired imagery. I’m sure his books of poems are as essential as Jewel’s. “City Girl” follows, showing what amazing things a bass and some drums can do, and we’d be getting somewhere if Weaver could figure out what a melody is. “Drag The Hills” goes for the ultimate intimate sparseness, which can be a very powerful thing if you’ve got the talent to pull it off. Weaver doesn’t.
“East Jefferson” is the only track that I can speak about positively (well, in my own cynical way). His formula hasn’t changed, but he manages to come out with an engaging melody, and the vocal harmonies aren’t a disaster. Still, it’s nothing revelatory. By the time I got to “While I’m Gone”, my notes simply read: “BORING. JUST BORING.” I was far too vexed at that point to elaborate.
After a break, I got to “Maiden Cliff”, with its pitchy vocals, unsuccessful traditional folk flavors, and its complete inability to engage the listener. Are we having fun yet? “Split Ends” is the track most reminiscent of early Leonard Cohen, without any of the mystery or intrigue that Cohen so effortlessly evoked. “22 Shells” seems to be going for the Americana doom of Woven Hand but lacks any energy or atmosphere (which can be said about every song on here). And to finish it all off, Weaver provides his most unforgivable track, “The Rooster’s Wife”, where he seems to be resting on the laurels he’s created in his own mind, plucking a completely unlistenable “melody”, making his intentions so transparent that the outcome is strictly pathetic.
Of course, Weaver’s got critics up his ass, proclaiming his brilliance and so on and so on. You know, if I wanted to hear a guy with no concept of vocal melodies pick a banjo at a snail’s pace, I’d just go to a lousy Nashville bar or coffee shop. The city’s only an hour away. “Left the songs alone for the most part,” says the man, “like unbroken horses that had never known a saddle / with burrs and river water in their manes”. Go on and think you’re a poet, man, but saying shit like that just makes you sound like a self-absorbed asshole. Mirepoix & Smoke offers almost nothing and is, for the most part, completely without merit.
Maybe next time you shouldn’t leave the songs alone.