As far as the democratization of the Internet goes, Bandcamp is essentially a good thing. A resource for unsigned bands to put their music out into the world that actually empowers up-and-coming acts sounds very positive, but the downside is that you risk getting lost in the shuffle. While it may be a hunting ground for promising young acts, it’s also unlikely you’re going to be on Bandcamp and suddenly come across the finished article.
For that reason and many others, Love’s Crushing Diamond is truly special. Now getting a wide commercial release through Other Music Recording Co., the album is the work of former Ohio native Jordan Lee, and it instantly catapults him into the upper echelons of American singer/songwriters. Through just over half an hour of gorgeous, lush Americana, it is Lee’s voice that acts as the delicate spine. That voice recalls the likes of Jonathan Donahue and Wayne Coyne, but it is infused with a sincerity that is beyond either of those much more celebrated vocalists.
The album does not so much begin as shuffle into existence. “Strong River” is the sound of the music being born as the band’s various instruments hover into view over the sound of Lee singing, “The river only knows to carry on.” Quietly the opening beat and woodwind intro of “Golden Wake” take over, and so we have the album’s first fully-formed pop song. Its three minutes are relatively brisk by the standards of what follows, but thematically the introspection — not to mention the regular water metaphors — are a neat summation of the album’s sound. When Lee sings, “And in these holy empty hours when my quiet thoughts get louder,” it’s just one of the many examples of his ability to come up with utterly memorable lyrics that sound almost off-the-cuff in their throwaway delivery.
While “Golden Wake” proves that Lee can write a fine pop song, it is the expanded folk sound of “Advanced Falconry” that sees the album shift into classic territory. From here on in, Lee’s voice is accentuated by wonderful arrangements featuring gentle waves of violin and an unhurried nature that sees several songs stroll past the five-minute mark without ever outstaying their welcome. Indeed those arrangements are often allowed to take up the bulk of a track’s length as Lee slips into the shadows, allowing the sound to come to fruition. It’s astounding and hugely encouraging to think that an album this accomplished and rich was made with no help from a label.
This is by no means a solo effort, and it is the collective mentality and the loose vibe that appear to be the album’s greatest strengths. The ramshackle intro and spontaneous laughter at the end of “Let’s Play / Statue of a Man” are the sound of a group of friends really enjoying putting this music together, and Lee is never bogged down by the effort of trying to make a big artistic statement. Instead, there is an emotional connection here that is warm and enveloping, never more so than on “C.L. Rosarian,” the album’s highlight and its most moving song. When it reaches its chorus of “Careless love / I didn’t want to fall in love with you but it seems that there is nothing that I can do,“ it begins to sound as definitive a song as “Do You Realize?” in terms of being a perfect representation of where Mutual Benefit is at right now.
To get lost in the music of Mutual Benefit is to get lost in something timeless and true. Its virtues are honesty, sincerity, and a complete lack of pretentiousness and cynicism, and it is a thoroughly rewarding album. The first time I heard it, I described it to my wife as sounding like central heating for the soul, and I stand by that statement. I would also say that if I were to rewrite my albums of the year list today, Love’s Crushing Diamond would walk into the top ten, and considering its modest origins, that makes it one of the year’s most extraordinary musical achievements.
Tickets to Mutual Benefit’s upcoming show at the Center for the Arts in Eagle Rock on January 28th are still available.
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