Ben Bostick

Ben Bostick

Simply Fantastic Music, 2017

REVIEW BY: Jason Warburg


Any music industry types skeptical of the resurgent “outlaw country” genre might consider this anecdote. As musically omnivorous as I can be at times, I’ve got no use at all for mainstream country; it’s passionless formula dumbed down for the lowest common denominator. But Jason Isbell? Sturgill Simpson? Chris Stapleton? Now that’s musical craft worth my time and attention.

There’s a certain set of frames and themes and settings and expectations that form the vocabulary of country music. What artists like Isbell and Simpson and Stapleton do that interests me is to subvert or stretch or otherwise rebel against their limitations in interesting ways—and write emotionally rich and authentic songs while doing so.

Ben Bostick’s self-titled debut album contains a number of familiar tropes, to be sure. Laugh-out-loud clever novelty songs, sweeping ballads, multiple references to honky tonks, and a rebellious frontier-spirit individualism at the heart of it all, for a few. But his subversive streak is right up front from the very start, when the opening number “Independence Day Eve” turns out to be a song about the end of the world, a sci-fi theme right out of a progressive rock epic set to dusty acoustic guitars, melancholy piano and a piercing slide solo.

“Coast Of Mexico” offers a fresh twist on both road songs and the all-too-familiar “put another whiskey on the bar” country trope, an upbeat tune with a hint of a Jimmy Buffett vibe about ditching the responsibilities of everyday life for a tent on the beach on the coast of Mexico “with a button of peyote and a little bit of Mexican snow.” The George Strait / Hank Williams traditional-country spirit arrives full force with “Paid My Dues,” featuring rollicking piano, a jackrabbit beat, and a lyric about paying his dues playing in honky tonks all through Mississippi and Louisiana. my_heart_sings_the_harmony_web_ad_alt_250

“After The Rain” is a rousing, gospel-tinged singalong about spiritual cleansing—but, again subverting expectations, one that finds it in nature rather than the Bible: “I don’t know what Jesus said / He never spoke to me / But I thank the sky above / For pouring down her holy love / To save a wretch like me.” Completing the first half of the album—which the album art divides neatly into two segments, like a vinyl LP—Bostick delivers a heartfelt, bittersweet elegy to an old love who’s committed suicide, preserving memories of their years-ago connection in amber forever (“Paper Football”). The addition of horns in the final minute gives this beautiful tune a New Orleans funeral march feel at the end.

If the latter sounds like it might call for a mid-album 180-degree tone shift to lighten the mood, Bostick agrees, hitting you next with “The Juggler,” the aforementioned novelty about a rascally ne’er-do-well juggling three relationships at once, featuring a full-tilt boogie beat, barrelhouse piano, and a little Elvis waver sneaking into Bostick’s self-mocking vocals. Next is “Sweet Thursday,” a gently melancholy acoustic number about meeting someone and being thunderstruck by infatuation. In case you were still wondering if the atmospheric opening featuring just voice, guitar, and harmonica was an intentional nod to Springsteen, later on there’s a reference to “suicide machines” as the pair hits the road.

“Supposed To” offers the sort of playful wisdom and clever construction that we expect from traditional country, but there’s an undercurrent of real bitterness from a narrator who’s followed the script life handed him, only to have his expectations go unfulfilled: “What’s all this ‘supposed to’ ever done for me?” Somber barroom ballad “I Should Have Been Her Man” harks back to another apparent influence—early Garth Brooks—with its earnest, well-crafted intensity, not to mention this note-perfect observation: “These honky tonk mirrors put lines on your face.” “Erin Is Blue” closes things out, a somber, airy number drenched in equal measures of echo and regret until its booming final chorus puts an exclamation point on the album.

Bostick himself rejects the “outlaw country” label, doesn’t follow the pop-rock-leaning conventions of alt-country, and insists he’s not trying to imitate classic country. His self-selected description of what he does is “outsider country,” and that feels on target after listening to this disc. The kinship Bostick’s music has with artists like Isbell and Simpson and Stapleton is clear—all are tremendously talented singer-songwriters who set deeply personal songs to the sounds that feel right at the time, often employing the musical vocabulary of classic country, but determined to blaze their own trails, individualists to the end. Count me in.

Rating: A-

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