A recent report in the New York Times said that Americans aren’t as optimistic as we used to be. In fact, we have become pessimistic. We’ve always had problems. Our national spirit presumed that we would solve them and make a better world. Apparently, that belief is not the case anymore for many citizens. Ben Miller is the exception. He may suffer the slings and arrows of misfortune. You can steal the bike right off his porch. He can get so drunk that he falls in the tub while pissing in the sink and get twisted in the shower curtains. It doesn’t matter. “Nothin’ Gets Me Down” is his motto.
It’s hard to know what to make of Miller’s light-heartedness. He takes the world seriously. He takes life seriously. On “Trapeze” he presumes the character of one who works without a net and accepts the fact that one slip and he’s finished. But he also posits that the act only has value if it is dangerous. His entertainment value lies in the fact that he might fall to his death. That’s the thrill. That’s metaphorically true of his music as well. It’s risky.
Miller has a voice that sounds as if it has been warped by eating too many sour chokecherries with a Joplin, Missouri drawl that stretches out and bends words into unrecognizable sounds until you realize he’s singing about the Japanese director “Akira Kurosawa” or a “Redwing Blackbird”. He sings in an off-tempo, never quite on the beat on some cuts and then to a strict martial cadence on others. That can create intimacy or distance as the song demands. He’s either the guy at the bar spilling his sad story or the too insistent fellow demanding you listen.
The Ben Miller Band currently consists of lead vocalist/guitarist Ben Miller, and one other original group member; the bassist, drummer, and backup vocalist, Scott Leeper. The combo now includes singer, violinist, cellist, and guitarist, Rachel Ammons, and guitarist, bassist, percussionist, Bob Lewis. Producer Chris Funk (the Decemberists) also includes several uncredited instrumentalists on the record, which is ostensibly country but includes synthesizers and other electronic effects. Miller and Leeper add primitive homemade instrumentation as well.
Classifying the music is a pointless exercise. The songs determine the arrangements to a large extent—or at least come out of the same creative matrix. Not being confined to any particular genre allows Miller and company to get weird. That’s true of the lyrics as well as with the arrangements. Take a song like “Sketchbook” where Miller goes from being a best man at a wedding and drinking warm wine out of a canteen in the desert with a camel to looking at MRIs and CAT Scans of his father’s blood clots to shopping at Walmart at four o’clock in the morning to porcupining a voodoo doll. It all makes sense in the context of the song.
Or it makes sense by not making sense. We live in a crazy mixed up world where someone paints an American flag on an outdoor wall and replaces the stars with a swastika. We can wait for miracles, like Miller, to help us look forward to the future. But even he understands that it’s possible to wait too long. His music harkens back to an earlier time more than it points to what will happen next. Not letting anything get you down is more of a coping mechanism than a life philosophy. The album title’s cherries may look tasty, but you’ll choke if you eat them.