In regular times, Dave Benton’s last record would’ve been a breakthrough. Trace Mountains’ Lost in the Country was a charming, witty, and sometimes heartbreaking collection of songs about leaving behind the DIY community that helped him find his voice, both as a singer in LVL Up and as one-half of the influential Double Double Whammy label. But on its release day in April of 2020, Benton was at home like everyone else. The tour in support of the record had been canceled, and he’d been laid off from his warehouse job. So, he tried to find his balance: he practiced fingerpicking, listened to a lot of Hiss Golden Messenger, and set up a Patreon to help make ends meet.
Trace Mountains’ latest record, HOUSE OF CONFUSION, is the result of that unexpectedly productive time. In almost every way, it’s another step forward. Lost in the Country sounded like an indie rock band trying their best hand at Americana, but on this record, they’re the genuine article. Some of that is thanks to the stellar band that Benton’s assembled, especially J.R. Bohannon and his atmospheric pedal steel. More than anything, though, it’s Benton’s songwriting, which has continued to grow by leaning into Lost in the Country’s more rustic tendencies and refining them.
The first half of the record is packed with shimmery alt-country songs, many of which are the most direct and catchiest tracks of Benton’s career. In the past, his soft, boyish voice sometimes wavered under the weight of his songs, but here he’s found the perfect register. “You don’t gotta be perfect to receive love,” he sings on the soaring conclusion to “On My Knees”, sounding more confident than ever.
Don’t assume that Trace Mountains have gone full No Depression, though. Midway through the record is the pensive and plodding “Late”, a synth-drenched number that’s a jarring juxtaposition to the sunny first half of the album. The song recalls a mundane morning routine, grabbing coffee at the deli before heading to the worksite, though there’s trouble in the distance and “double black circles around everything.” It’s a welcomed change of pace that calls to mind the haunting folk of Emmylou Harris’ Wrecking Ball, an LP Benton cited as one of the band’s favorites.
The record’s centerpiece and lead single “America” sounds as bright as the A-side, but its anthemic qualities are an act of misdirection. “I was on the road in my mind,” Benton said in press materials for the album. “Thinking back on my life as a musician — my successes, my failures — and I was reflecting on the ever-going process of moving on that my life has been made up of.” And those memories aren’t all romantic. “They always said that you could make a life of it,” he sings in a hushed voice like he’s trying to explain how he could have fallen for such an obvious lie.
It’s not clear whether he’s referring to his career or his country, whether he’s trying to upend the American road narrative or the American myth itself. He’s uncertain, defeated, earnest, ironic, heartbroken, and inspiring all at once. I can’t think of a better example of what “Americana” should sound like in 2021.