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Ben Woods
Dispeller Bernie Brooks , July 20th, 2022 07:45

Ben Woods’s latest is a weirdly accessible, creaky-yet-meticulous marvel that just might remind you of why you loved indie rock in the first place, says Bernie Brooks

We’ll get to Ben Woods’s latest LP in a minute, but first: some time travel.

It’s 7 August 1995, seven in the evening probably, and the TV is on. On the screen is a dirty bathtub in a tiled bathroom. One of the wall tiles is missing, and in this void is the band Pavement. The boys begin to play their lethargic anthem ‘Rattled By The Rush’. Then, Butt-head chimes in: “Oh no, it’s another one of these!” Beavis doesn’t like it either. He thinks if Pavement is going to suck, they should at least rock, like The Jesus Lizard. These days, in my social circle, we’ve all become a little Butt-head-ed when it comes to capital-I indie. The term itself almost feels pejorative. And I’ve gotta say – having spent more years than I’d like to admit well devoted to the stuff – that scepticism? Not undeserved.

Fun fact: I have not flogged a single CD, cassette, or vinyl LP from my collection in something like twenty-five years, and that includes college radio and record store promos. My first ten CDs arrived in the mail in late summer 1993, thanks to Columbia House mistakenly or perhaps predatorily offering thirteen-year-old me a subscription to their service (which I never paid for). As soon as I ripped the cellophane from the jewel cases, I was hooked. Once I had a car, I began making weekly trips to local Metro Detroit record shops, Car City or Record Time usually. Meanwhile, the automatic selections Columbia House would send kept arriving – for years. By the end of high school, I decided to send a stack of subscription stinkers to an early internet used CD concern to swap for something else. The guilt I felt after this transaction was astonishing and inexplicable. I haven’t sold a single record since. I’ve lost some and given a few away, and once threw a Sublime CD out of a moving car into a ditch (I feel sorry for the ditch), but the collection remains pretty much intact. And given that I came of age when indie rock was king, it is liberally peppered with garbage, over-seasoned with trash.

In my basement, scanning my shelves, I see heaps of landfill indie, buzzy Pitchfork washouts, horrible nouveau garage, sad sack misogynists, terribly forgettable or just plain terrible records from the aughts, often occupying some of the most wretched sonic spaces imaginable. I want to topple the shelves, maybe hurl it all into the bin. But then, inevitably, there are treasures, records that justify my unwieldy stockpile, and more than that – that justify indie rock as an endeavour. Things with true staying power, things full of ideas. You land on Yo La Tengo’s I Can Hear The Heart Beating As One or You & Me by The Walkmen (recently reissued with a wonderful new remaster from Christopher Colbert at National Freedom by the way), and all of indie’s sins are forgiven. Its potential – the potential it still has – is laid bare. New records like that, though? They’re few and far between.

Which brings us all the way back around to New Zealand and Ben Woods, because – thank god, the gods, the universe, or whatever higher power you want – his sophomore LP Dispeller is a You & Me, an I Can Hear The Heart Beating As One. I know this, because I’ve been listening to it for the better part of the year, many times a week, sometimes daily, and I’m still not sick of it. I haven’t worn it out. The songs are durable, strange things, full of odd details and rooted in tradition and songcraft, but never precious. And it helps that Woods isn’t afraid to weird them up, to make a mess.

An impressively strong lyricist, Woods is, at heart, something of a singer-songwriter in the classic pop sense. The songs on Dispeller are written for voice and guitar or voice and piano, and played straight, they would be just fine – pretty great even. Take ‘Trace Reel’ for instance, a jaunty, piano-led number that flirts with the saloon. It’s an outlier on the record – the most broadly appealing, most accessible track here, with Woods’s honeyed croon on full display, a comparatively upbeat vibe, and a lightly psychedelic guitar finale. It’s properly catchy, not hard at all to imagine cued up on an NPR playlist, and one of only two uptempo numbers on the LP (the other is the deeply unhinged ‘Speaking Belt’, featuring the inimitable Alastair Galbraith.) But even here there's also a clearly audible insectoid buzz running under most of the track, and beneath that guitar solo? What sounds like a piano being brutalised by man and reverb. Those unexpected touches create a sort of internal opposition within the track, elevating it beyond something easily slotted into an MOR drive-time radio hour. It becomes something other, which is pretty much the story of this album. In any case, one might’ve expected ‘Trace Reel’ to be Dispeller’s lead single, but it wasn’t. Which I think says a lot about Woods as an artist.

That single was the haunted, haunting ‘Hovering At Home’, a bit of slow Southern gothic by way of NZ. Built on Woods’s voice and a simple guitar figure – itself adorned with an audible click, likely an artefact from the recording process many would have discarded – the track is most of all a showcase of tape noise and manipulation and the interplay between that and more traditional instrumentation, culminating in a sort of face-off between warbling static and hiss and Memphis-y horns. It is decidedly less marketable than ‘Trace Reel’, but it’s also much more indicative of the space both Woods and Dispeller occupy as artist and album, respectively. It’s an interesting space, for sure, somehow accommodating the traditional and forward thinking, the open-armed and bloody-minded, and doing so in a way that seems unforced and organic. It seems to me that only happens when an album truly, holistically represents the artist who made it. Which, to state the obvious, is rare.

Rarer still is an indie rock recording with such a clear understanding of and appreciation for the bass drone, for the power of the sub. Dispeller, it turns out, is a subtle window rattler. Still, this isn’t a heavy record in the doomy, Sabbath-ian sense of the word – a good thing, as that wouldn’t suit it much. Nor is bass always or even usually a rhythm-enabler – these songs are often far too slow for that. Instead, it is frequently a drone-deployer and atmosphere-thickener, aural corn starch for the jus of the room. Which isn’t to say it’s incidental or unnecessary in such instances. Far from it. When it rumbles in on, say, opener ‘Fame’ or album highlight ‘White Leather Again’ you feel it, and it feels great. When it does provide some rhythmic sauce, as on ‘Wearing Divine’’s strange-o, slo-mo riff on ‘Crimson and Clover’, it grooves in a slinky, cheek-to-cheek sort of way. Again, feels good. To me, that speaks volumes about the quality of Ben Edwards and Woods’s warm, creaky-yet-meticulous, just-lo-fi-enough production. Nothing is superfluous, from tape choirs to radio chatter, everything is utilised to its full potential in the service of getting you, the listener, where Woods wants you to go.

Which is why I’ve mentioned Dispeller in the same breath as the aforementioned You & Me and I Can Hear The Heart Beating As One. Despite it not having much in common with either aesthetically (besides a shared fondness with the former for languor and detuned pianos), it does what they do. Like them, Woods pinpoints an emotion and puts you there. Like them, Woods, through his work, places himself precisely within a clear lineage of artists (he’s on Melted Ice Cream and Shrimper for a reason), while also proving there are still ways to move forward, new ways to interpret. Like them, he illustrates the wisdom of ignoring your inner Butt-head from time to time, lest you miss out on one of those increasingly uncommon records that gives and gives, that reminds you of why you loved indie rock in the first place.