“Basically this album is about being in love, old American music, and Jesus.”
Continuing his ongoing quest to occupy something like 15% of my Top 20 Albums of 2012 list, Ben Seretan ’10 (I was going to write “of Duchampion fame,” but at this point I think “of Ben Seretan fame” is more appropriate) has got a new record on BandCamp. It’s called New Song, capping off a loose trilogy that includes last year’s New Music and 2012’s New Space, and it’s unsurprisingly fantastic, cycling through Americana-tinged originals, blues standards, and 48-minute boombox drones (okay, there is only one of those) with fluent ease. Between recording New Space, making a music video, dropping a collaborative LP with Portland band The Early, and materializing at Wesleyan to open for Oneohtrix Point Never in October, Seretan has stayed pretty busy in 2012. Somehow he has still made the time to take the audio of Grand Central with me next week. (Leave a comment if you want to join us.) (Serious inquiries only, please.)
Seretan recorded the album this summer, in a single afternoon (no overdubs), while in residency at the Wassaic Project. He wrote and rehearsed it in an old cattle auction barn. You’ll recognize a few of the originals from his performance on campus in October. According to Seretan, the setting strongly influenced the album’s thematic qualities:
Basically this album is about being in love, old American music, and Jesus. I wrote it while living in upstate New York this summer and while rehearsing in an old horse barn. I think the exemplary line from the record is ‘When I’m with you, heaven smiles down—crocuses are bursting through the soil.’ Seeing the world as an enchanted/religious/blessed place, feeling good, summer baptisms, laying with a naked person in a too-small twin bed, the smell of grass, entertaining the notion of a creator with no notion of the devil, edenic, a feeling of living in multiple time periods at once (the feeling of talking on a cell phone in a field unchanged for centuries, using a language that is new but somehow remembered), the guitar as if it grew out of the earth like a root vegetable, my voice like it fell sun ripened from a tree.
That spiritually-minded Americana fixation pervades the album lyrically and musically, but it’s especially rich on “My One True Love,” which combines one of Seretan’s sweetest old-timey guitar melodies with a paean to a horse running up a hill in Wassaic: “I was a horse,” Seretan sings, livening up the empty spaces with skilled finger-picking patterns. “I run up that hill.” The singer’s voice cracks into falsetto on the chorus. Octaves below, his guitar rumbles and shakes:
Then there’s Seretan’s take on “In The Pines,” a traditional made famous by Leadbelly. Nirvana fans will recognize it as “Where Did You Sleep Last Night?” Seretan tells me he was most inspired by the Louvin brothers and their version. His take is effortlessly expansive, rambling well past the ten-minute mark and trading Kurt Cobain’s yelps for slow-motion croons:
The drone comes last. It’s called “In the Sweet Bye & Bye,” it’s 48-minutes long, and Seretan describes it as “sort of the anti-Twitter.” If you’re into that sort of thing, here’s how Seretan recorded it:
I played a drone into a boombox recording onto cassette tape (an imperfect method, thus the random noise at the beginning). We popped a couple of mics on the boombox speakers in the studio and played back the tape, while I played another complimentary drone under it. The warping that occurs at the end is unplanned and due to pure mechanical failure—there was no intervention on my end. I wanted the piece to be as thorough as possible—we just played back the tape, I just played the guitar, we stopped recording when the tape ran out.
The drone is a half-hearted attempt at depicting a reverie of the afterlife, the “sweet by and by.” The tape running out suddenly is that awaking, that interruption of the dream of paradise. There’s also some interesting tension between physical and digital media—the limit of this piece is decided by the length of cassette tape, and theoretically mp3s can be infinitely long. However I found out when trying to release this long-ass mp3 that there is actually a physical, real limit to filesize and its distribution. This piece barely fit on bandcamp.
I recorded the original cassette tape late one night in Wassaic, in the cattle auction barn I’ve made reference to. I wanted there to be a physical artifact of this really surreal, notable situation I had found myself in this past August. Sadly, the original tape is lost to the sands of time—my first boombox broke (the tape head fell out, what the hell??) and while trying out another loaned backup, the tape was irreparably eaten. So I had to borrow yet another boombox and recreate the original Wassaic tape.