When I reviewed Deep Elm's Emo Diaries Chapter Six, I noted that Benton Falls's "Tell Him" was one of the standout tracks on the disc. All emo discussions aside, it's a strangely touching song and Michael Richardson's vocals are consistently engaging. "Tell Him" was the public debut of Benton Falls, and, in keeping with the Emo Diaries concept, isn't released anywhere else. From one song's strength, it seemed that any further effort by Benton Falls would be worth checking out.
Enter Fighting Starlight, the debut album from Benton Falls on, of course, Deep Elm. And, as these things go, I can't say I'm disappointed in any way. This Santa Rosa, California foursome has released an impressively tight and effective debut that is certainly worth checking out if you're into the whole indie rock thing. Impressively dense, never sloppy, and well-crafted, the songs here are compact slices of emotion that fit right into the indie/emo brand of power rock underpinned by mopey sentimentalism.
As the seasons change from the hotter days of summer, and the cold begins to turn the leaves from green to gold, orange and red, Fighting Starlight could be the sad but perfect companion to chilly, contemplative days. Like so many of their scene-mates, Benton Falls fluctuates back and forth from low-key misery softly played to angry, screaming power chords. But the interplay between Richardson's guitars with former member of Ethel Meserve, Gerb's, own string work keeps things in an autumnal mood. This is accomplished primarily by the relationship of the big, crunchy punk guitars being secondary to a sensual, wistful plucking that just feels like Fall. There's a sense of sweaters, walking through the woods, contemplating failed relationships, feeling the isolation of a nippy breeze.
Of course, this is still par for the course in this scene. In some ways, that's the strength of Benton Falls. They won't disappoint the devotees, and the sad kids will probably love the way this will slip into the CD player easily between Jawbox and the Getup Kids. For folks who aren't so emo-inclined, Benton Falls has enough actual musicality and sense of songcraft that you can take them seriously as a band and not just another representative of a derivative scene.
However, Fighting Starlight is far from a perfect album. Although Benton Falls manages to hit all the right notes and tug the right heartstrings, after a while it begins to seem fairly formulaic. They set the tone for Fighting Starlight within the first four songs, and while "All these Things", "Swimming with You", "Fighting Starlight", and "Sad like Winter Leaves" compare easily to the strength of "Tell Him", you've pretty much heard all that Benton Falls offers at that point. After listening to five or six songs, the notes blur into one album-length sound and the hooks, which are solid enough, become predictable. The strength of the aforementioned guitar plucking, which is really the highlight of the band, is foregrounded so much throughout Fighting Starlight that eventually it all begins to sound the same. By the time "Eudora" plays itself out and the album ends, it's hard to say how many songs you listened to or where one ended and the next began.
Versatility is something that comes with time, and the self-sameness of many of the tracks on Fighting Starlight is a small price to pay for the other, more accomplished positives that Benton Falls has to offer. What's truly impressive is that the band is so tight and has such a powerful sense of composition. If Fighting Starlight really is that perfect album for an autumn sunset then it deserves praise for it. Perhaps with time Benton Falls will write a spring/summer album to compliment it, although being an indie/emo Deep Elm band, it's not likely. Maybe we'll just have to wait for next year's Fall instead.