Thursday, November 18, 2010

Bennett Brier - Scorpio and Me


I have been reviewing albums here for almost two years now, and I have collected albums for far longer than that. But here is a situation I have never encountered before. Scorpio and Me is the new album by Bennett Brier, bur Brier does not play or sing a single note on it. I researched, and I discovered that Brier has done this once before. Anthem came out in 1999. On that album, a variety of artists performed Brier’s songs, and I think they did pretty much whatever they wanted with them. So Anthem has some folk, some rock, some songs that are on the country side; it’s something of a hodgepodge. But Scorpio and Me is another matter. Brier basically doesn’t record his own songs because he feels that he can not get them to sound how they do in his head. On Scorpio and Me, Jay Sims and Stephen Doster set aside their egos, and give Brier the sound he was looking for.

Jay Sims plays rhythm acoustic guitar, and provides a solid foundation for these songs. Sims also provides the vocals, singing in a baritone that can be smooth or have a scratch in it, as the song requires. Stephen Doster plays lead acoustic guitar, and his lines and solos eloquently comment on Brier’s words and Sims’ delivery of them. And that’s it for arrangements. The two guitars both have steel strings, and there are no other instruments. The songs are mostly midtempo, so there isn’t a lot of variation in the sound. Scorpio and Me is a collection of fourteen songs, totaling just over an hour of music, and its musical pleasures are subtle. This is not good driving music, but it certainly does reward close listening.

Then there are the words, and this explains why this album was made. Bennett Brier is a poet. The songs here tell stories, or parts of a longer story. Brier leaves blanks in the telling for his listeners to fill in. I will discuss what some of the songs are about, but I have no doubt that other listeners will here them differently. For me, the fulcrum of the album is the song Harsh Unto My Eyes. The songs before this tell of stormy relationships and breakups. Anna Tennilee has a narrator who was pulled away from the woman he loves by the demands life, and now he returns, only to find her gone; he tries to pick up her trail, but the outcome is uncertain. Don’t Do Those Things You Do isn’t a breakup song, but it has the tone of one. It isn’t clear why the narrator wants to stay. Interspersed with these are some songs of encouragement or faith, but these don’t relate to the relationship per se. One of these is Harijan. I was unfamiliar with the term, so I looked it up. Dalits is a term that is used in India and Pakistan to refer to an underclass caste that was considered unsuitable for relationships; Gandhi, however, called such people Harijan, which means “children of God”. So Harijan the song is about breaking down barriers to let love through. Harsh Unto My Eyes starts with the narrator contemplating a winter scene that reflects his emotions; he is in mourning for a relationship that seems dead. But halfway through the song, something happens to him; he thinks back to a spring scene when the relationship was better, and he remembers seeing the birds. For the last two verses, it is winter again, but now the narrator has become a bird himself. He thinks of flying away, but can not decide to where. The song ends with him in the cold nest, but with new hope. This looks strange in print, but remember that Brier is a poet; he makes it work beautifully. The remaining songs on the album are about how the relationship is saved. There are rough spots, but there are also eloquent expressions of love. Baby You’ll Only Do Good mirrors Don’t You Do Those Things You Do, but the anger in the earlier song is now replaced with faith and encouragement. The album ends with Joined Unto Thee which quietly celebrates the newly cemented relationship, but does not take anything for granted. It’s a happy ending, but a realistic one as well.

It all adds up to a wonderful piece of storytelling. I will look forward to the next cycle of songs from Bennett Brier. And I will be looking to find out more about Jay Sims and Stephen Doster.

Bennett Brier: Anna Tennilee

Bennett Brier: Joined Unto Thee