Songs in a Minor Key
Benzos’ debut release, Morning Stanzas , is an album that defies easy categorization. This is partly by design, but it’s also recognizable as the process through which a young band begins navigating the tributaries of its own identity. The former represents conscious choice, a decision to traverse genres and meld together—amongst other things—aspects of rock and electronic music (similar, for example, to the approach with which Doves announced themselves on 2000’s Lost Souls); the latter embodies music as creative journey, the natural process of a band seeking out its creative destination (of which there’s no such thing).
Benzos are (yes, another) NYC-based band, and if the brash energy of the “New York scene” has been pervasive for a couple of years now (are those signs of waning we hear?), then there’s a sly contrary wit about Benzos, a band whose music is both deliberate and contemplative, one possessing a distinct cerebral edge in approach. When I suggest the album defies easy categorization, what I mean specifically is that it defies easy objective categorization. While it’s true that the essential recipe might be reduced to two parts Radiohead, one part Jeff Buckley, with light seasoning of further elements (house music, prog-rock), all brought gently to a simmer, what’s more interesting is the nature of these influences, and the choices that lie behind them.
Over the course of the past decade, there has perhaps been no band more “credible” than Radiohead. It’s surprising then that their influence has not been more widely felt. Certainly there was a time, after the almost immediate canonization of OK Computer and before the more insular, polarizing experiments of Kid A and Amnesiac, when it seemed that we’d be flooded with cheap knock-offs and imitations. Travis were almost immediately labeled as “Radiohead-lite”, and Coldplay arrived to a chorus of similar dispersion. Strange how one rarely hears those comparisons any more. And yet once Radiohead divorced themselves from the prospect of U2-like status, once they chose the road less traveled and embarked on their own, less-accessible sonic journey, the would-be imitators peeled away and set-off in search of easier targets.
There are Radiohead references to be heard throughout Morning Stanzas, and it’s true that sometimes they’re a little over-ripe. The intros to “Glass Souls” and “The Blue Around You” echo Bends-era song styling, while “It’s Amiable” takes on the shimmering fret-work of “Airbag” from OK Computer. Like Radiohead, Benzos’ music inhabits broad, wide-open spaces, and they prefer to relay messages through a carefully cultivated atmosphere rather than by direct address. The vocals, frequently elegant and lovely, are deliberately indistinct, so that I couldn’t really tell you what many of the lyrics are, nor what most of the songs are about.
Occasionally Radiohead have been accused of a certain Pink Floyd-ism—a serious charge I believe—one relating to gross tedium and self-indulgence. I was reminded of such accusations when listening to Morning Stanzas, because in their weaker moments there’s definitely a shade of prog-rock about Benzos. At times the melodies feel readily familiar, and a wish-washy ‘70s rock aura permeates their sound, as if they’ve lost their way in the stoned-out bliss of their own music.
The Jeff Buckley comparisons are more easily stated, with vocals here that reflect Buckley’s gorgeous, whimsical, and strangely gothic sensibilities. Of course, it’s a dangerous game, attempting to fill such shoes, and I doubt Benzos would claim it as their intent. Still, given such similar vocal mannerisms and gestures, they must surely see that comparisons are inevitable. While there’s a lovely delicacy and sweetness here, having seen Benzos live, I’m not yet convinced they can balance that sweetness with the power Buckley drew on, nor anything like it—unless the show I saw was an aberration?
Strangely perhaps, at least in view of their publicity and reputation, the dance/electronic music influence is relatively muted on this album. More than any distinct or noticeable dance vibe, Benzos have recognized the broader range of possibilities outside of the more traditional rock means, and taken it as their leaping-off point. The same might certainly be said of Doves, whom no-one would ever mistake for a dance act. Benzos, meanwhile, are attempting to journey along a noble road, and as with most journeys without a map, there are occasional wrong turns, as well as happy, accidental detours. These are songs in a minor key, but they speak of grander ambition. Time will tell whether they possess the talent to match that ambition.