The hunt may be short, but damn is it worthwhile.
Some bands will perpetually fly under the radar, no matter how hard they try; indie gurus who you'll never hear about. Ben Barnett seems relegated to that status, and that's a real tragedy. Since 2000, under the name Kind of Like Spitting, he's released eight albums (nine if you count his re-recordings of early work). He flirted briefly with more "mainstream" indie with his 2002 release on Barsuk records, Bridges Worth Burning, featuring various guest appearances by the members of Death Cab for Cutie (Gibbard pounds the drums!). Barnett retains that connection on his latest release, "the thrill of the hunt", with uber-producer Chris Walla tackling half the tracks, all originals. About a third of the album is covers, but the whole thing is wonderful.
Another mostly stripped-down acoustic affair, Barnett lets his lyrics speak for themselves. "She's bright / and you're bleak" are the words that open the title track, a brisk piano number that remains both sad and happy at the same time. The beautiful throwback folk of "Hands" receives the same treatment. The somewhat self-deprecating song references how Ben himself isn't getting anything accomplished by writing a catchy melody, spouting out self-discoveries instead of angsty bombast: "It's a choice to just react / I've got to learn that lesson for the rest of my life". Though Barnett's love of B2K (or at least irony) may be questioned by titling a song "You Got Served", it proves to be another brilliant acoustic ballad. Lyrically, Barnett can switch between Gibbard-like emotional clarity and a bit-too-wordy syndrome, but his simple, lightly scratched voice carries enough conviction to convince you of any line.
Occasionally, and sadly, >"the thrill of the hunt" doesn't have much thrill. "Middle" is pleasant but not as cathartic as the title track. Worst of all is the heavy late-night downer "Holding Patterns". Over bleak piano and low-key guitar, the story of a reaction to the death of a friend is sincere, but lacking the direct emotional punch of his earlier efforts, occasionally wading into the oh-so-dreaded waters of pretentiousness. The details of remembrance are accurate (mix-tapes, sweaters, high phone-calls), but lines like "I remember so much life for you" come across as clichéd, painful all the more knowing Barnett is shooting from the heart.
Fortunately, the album's flaws are overshadowed by a quartet of absolutely brilliant covers. Front-loaded with the best, his take on Bad Religion's "You" is furious and blistering. With nothing but guitar and vocal, Barnett rips into it with adrenaline and intensity, serving as a brilliant accompaniment to the original. Leon Russell's "A Song for You" also gets a Spitting good makeover, making it seem like the archetype for any good emo song you've heard. A bouncy, but passable take of Dean Martin's "Lay Some Happiness on Me" is welcome, but the big folk-guitar fireworks are saved for the closing cut: a take on Big Star's "Thirteen". Played almost like a low-key version of the White Stripes' "I Just Know We're Going to Be Friends", Barnett retains the melody and adds a bit more warmth to the already excellent original pop version, like a warm hug goodnight after a good date.
If there's any major downside to the latest Spit mark, it's that it's too brief, clocking in at barely over 30 minutes. The hunt may be short, but damn is it worthwhile.