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STEREO EMBERS ALBUM PREMIER – “Contenders” from Great Lakes, including a Track-by-Track Breakdown from Founder Ben Crum

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Some songwriters’ aim is so true you have to wonder as to the origin of their gift. Was it hard-won, years of throwing chords into the dust until finally they began to fall into a self-ordered place and the words followed in a flow that suggested a pre-ordained grace? Were they just born that way, songsmithery lurking in their character as naturally as, say, being left-handed or having a cleft chin? Or was there some half-past midnight crossroads deal made with a lanky shadowy figure holding out a glowing golden light in the palm of their hand in exchange for just one mere, simple thing if you get our meaning? Or maybe it was as simple as what Verlaine said, a case of lightning striking itself, but whatever the case from wherever the source, and however you define the contours of ‘born songwriter,’ Ben Crum, the steadily vivid voice at the center of Great Lakes, fits that mold.


Of course, another viable guess regarding Mr Crum’s talents would be the age-old chestnut ‘practice makes perfect,’ seeing as Crum planted the seeds of this project with a classmate (Dan Donahue) while still in high school back in 1990. And whereas, yes, it makes sense that, by now, we’d be presented with an armful of gems such as is offered here on Contenders considering that long reach of experience behind him, we still, um, ‘contend’ that the level of craft on offer here, though certainly prefigured since that first, self-titled Great Lakes album showed up via Kindercore twenty-two years ago, transcends the dry rudiments of ‘practice practice practice.’ Nah, there’s a spark here, a quietly intense flame offering as much in shadow as it does in warmth or, more importantly, depth. The writing voice, like the audible one, is distinctly American but in that worldly – and, at times, world-weary – way that a select handful of Stateside songwriters seem to encompass without effort. Among much else to recommend it, Contenders, in feel more than word, limns a fraught but fierce territory not often explored in the American rock idiom, the one that stretches for but a brief few years between the sunset of one’s prime years and the onset of middle age. In the often keening yet joyous yet yearning tone of this album one senses the deep experience gathered over a creative career that’s edging into its fourth decade brushing up against an energy that won’t can’t quit, the resulting friction between those two dynamics almost certainly responsible for the record being an immensely satisfying listen, one that gathers up strands from (among much else) soul-fed blues to psychedelia to post-grunge to mystical southern pop to even a touch of upstate jangle and catalyzes them into what we can only call ‘the Great Lakes sound in excelsis,’ a thing of solid, inspiring, know-it-when-you-hear-it beauty that wows from its very core. It’s a result, we should note, that owes a great deal to the trusted ensemble Crum gathered around him for this Great Lakes go-round, joined as he was by longtime collaborators Kevin Shea on drums and Suzanne Nienaber on vocals, with additional contributions from The Essex Green’s Chris Ziter (vocals) , Louis Schefano (drums), Petter Folkedal (piano), Ray Rizzo (vocals) and Dave Gould (synths). Produced by Ben Crum, Contenders was mixed by Luis Leal and mastered by Jen Munson.


Now, normally in a preview piece of this kind, this is where we’d go on a wander through the tracklist to, basically, underscore all that’s just been said but fortunately for all concerned we have its primary author, none other than Ben Crum himself, on hand to give us that track-by-track breakdown promised in the title up above. So, put your finest pair of headphones on, hit that Soundcloud link and read along if you like. Or, save that reading for later and let yourself be immersed in one of the richest albums of this stripe as we’ve heard in quite some time. It is, in short, an up-to-now career-defining piece of work from an American master. [Contenders released today, Feb 4th on Happy Happy Birthday To Me Records. Order it here]

Contenders is the 7th Great Lakes album. It’s probably the most musically/instrumentally concise, yet lyrically dense, album I’ve made. Luis Leal, who mixed it, has always said it strikes him as a very New York record, for whatever reason. Unlike other records I’ve made in the past, this record really isn’t a who’s who. I made it with a core of two other musicians, both of whom I’ve been working with for over a decade. There are other players who guested on a few songs, but the record is mostly just Kevin Shea on drums and me playing all the other instruments, with Suzanne Nienaber singing with me. Stylistically, it’s pretty varied, and, for one of my records, the instrumentation is pretty sparse. Genre-wise, I’d say it’s closer to psych or garage rock or indie rock or something like that, but for some unknown reason people often use the term Americana to describe the songs I write. I feel like somebody wrote that one time and it just got repeated over and over. It’s not that big of a deal, but it doesn’t seem accurate to me. Luis Leal mixed the record, Jen Munson mastered it, and Jami Craig took the photos and did the artwork.   – Ben Crum 

Eclipse This. Musically, this song is a droney one one-chord almost blues. That usually calls to mind ragas and R.L. Burnside, but this one was probably inspired more than anything by Trad, Gras och Stenar. I love that type of menacing and darkly hypnotic psychedelia. The lyrics are personal. It’s partly a song about songwriting, about my history with it and a personal relationship I had around it. It’s also about the constant process of coming into being as an artist. My old pal Louis Schefano plays drums on it. 

Way Beyond the Blue. This is a song of advice, for the most part. It’s also a song about getting the hell out of a place you don’t want to be anymore. The gist of it is to seek your own happiness and fulfillment through utterly ignoring the opinions and protests of others. I feel the “advice song” genre represents a worthy songwriting tradition (David Berman’s “Advice to the Graduate” is the pinnacle in my view); yet it’s also a very hard kind of song to write without sounding like a man-splaining blowhard. There are two pieces of specific advice in the lyrics that I took from some famous sources: “let your reputation be ruined early on and you won’t have to bother  living up to it” paraphrases a line from one of Kurt Vonnegut’s commencement speeches; and “in this life you will love and be loved” comes from a letter Nicolai Sacco wrote, shortly before he was executed, to his young son. The song’s title itself comes from an old hymn, and refers to heaven. Being a huge GBV fan, I like how much the recording of this song achieves an Aliens Lanes type of sound. I love that shit. 

Easy When You Know How. It’s often said that memoirs and attempts at legitimate autobiography are always falsified and erroneous, to some extent, even when/if there’s no intent to mislead. This is what I meant by “but a man can’t tell the truth about himself”. Relatedly, in my own experience, trying to write about others always leads me back to writing about myself. I took the title for this song from something Levon Helm says in the “Classic Albums” documentary series on The Band’s second album. He’s sitting behind the mixing desk and they’re playing back isolated tracks from the recordings. They’ve got Garth Hudson’s brilliant piano part from Rag Mama Rag soloed, and when it ends, Levon says something like, “Well, it’s easy when you know how.” I love that idea, that what’s mystifyingly complex to some is incredibly simple to others. The “I promise you will never see my back” bit is a reference to a Native American threat of sworn retribution (it’s an “I’ll keep coming after you until you kill me” kind of thing). And the bit about needing the two left hands refers to a hokey (but still very appealing, at least to me) theory held by some pseudoscientists that the ancient Egyptians were depicted in their art with two left hands as an indication of their matriarchal society, and as a symbol of the importance of incorporating the feminine as well as the masculine in all things. So there’s a lot of varied stuff, connected in an idiosyncratic way, going on in this song. Suzanne’s harmony vocal arrangement in the choruses is a highlight for me. It shows her sophisticated ear for that kind of stuff. I played the bass through a combination fuzz and analog synthesizer device so it’s got that super thick, deep grindy sort of sound. 

Baby’s Breath. This song is about love and sex and dreams. I love Kevin Shea’s drumming here. I suggested that maybe he try those Mick Fleetwood-style caveman-type fills. As soon as he started playing them we were cracking up. It’s always been a rule of mine that if, in the studio, someone does something musically and it makes us laugh, it probably should go on the record. I like the nearly out of place spaghetti western fuzz guitar solo thing in the middle of the song. Chris Ziter of The Essex Green, sang the soaring vocals in the choruses, along with my long-time collaborator Suzanne Nienaber. Chris’s vocals remind me a bit of the vocals he did in the song “Farther” off the3rd GL album, Diamond Times. It was great to get him back singing on another Great Lakes record. I had some really fun times playing in his band for a few tours, and it’s always great to hear his voice on one of my songs. 

I’m Not Listening. I wrote this about my old friend and former bandmate Jamey Huggins. He has a very high opinion of his own musical talents (which is, honestly, a trait that I find to be very charming, up to a point). But he’s stopped releasing new music, for some reason. He had a bit of a late night drunken internet troll phase, which I had thought was over, but recently I learned is still very much ongoing. For a while he reserved his most toxic vitriol for me (or I hope I got the worst of it, because I feel bad for anybody who had to deal with worse from him). He has a strong need for recognition, and he regularly tells me my music has sucked since I quit collaborating with him. Of course, I suspect if he had played a single triangle track on one song on this record he’d consider the record to be a masterpiece. It was fun playing over Kevin’s Bo Diddley beat. I like how sparse the song’s arrangement is, and the way the baritone guitar creates a mood, and does so in a way that the listener is almost not aware of. 

Born Frees. I like how the Black South Africans born after Apartheid was abolished are known there as “Born Frees”. I think that’s beautiful. The song obviously nods to girl group type stuff and doo wop. I relate to the idea of self-identifying as a born free, in my own way: “we climb the temple steps, we feel in ocean depths… they call us ‘born frees’.” My Norwegian pal Petter Folkedal plays piano on this. This is definitely my first doo wop-inspired song. 

Last Night’s Smoke. This song is pretty auto-biographical. It pretty much says what it needs to say between “I put daylight between me and the business,”  “I have bested my share of bastards,” and “the evacuees aren’t going anywhere.” I am a huge Teenage Fanclub fan and I like how much this recording wears that influence on its sleeve. 

Wave Fighter. I wrote this music while on vacation on the island of Mallorca a few years ago. A friend I made while on tour years before had offered us a house on the water for a week, which was too nice of an offer to pass up. The photo of me that’s on the back of the LP was taken in that house.My friend left a beautiful old blond Guild acoustic guitar there at the house and I wrote this on that very inspiring instrument. The reason why the sound of waves is in the song is not because of the lyrics, but it’s because the acoustic guitar track is an iphone recording I made while sitting next to the Mediterranean as it was crashing against the rocks. At the time, I was just capturing the idea so I wouldn’t forget it, but I thought the waves on that recording sounded nice and my acoustic guitar performance was cleanly played and turned out to be right on time, so I had Kevin Shea play drums along with the iPhone recording, and then I added a bunch of other overdubs. I gave an instrumental mix of it to Suzanne and she wrote the lyrics and vocal melody for it. Obviously, the waves on the recording must have inspired her lyrics. This song is notable for being her first writing contribution to the band, even though she’s been singing with me now for over 10 years. Speaking of Suzanne, this is the 4th album we’ve done together. It’s been a great working relationship. I’m glad there’s a song on this album where she takes a bit more of the spotlight.

Broken Even. One of my favorite lines from any song is “the best that you can hope for is to die in your sleep.” I love the idea that by dying somebody can break even. I feel like I can’t help but touch on this theme in a lot of my songs. It’s sort of an old Woody Allen trope: life is pretty miserable and filled with pain, yet for many of us it’s over too soon. The part of this song I like the most is “…and all the questions they want me to answer, well, ‘no answer’ is my answer.” The backing vocals here are by Louis Schefano, as well as Suzanne. 

Your Eyes are Xs. This song goes out to my old friends and bandmates Louis Schefano, Craig Ceravolo and Jason Hamric. Louis actually played drums and tambourine on this. I wrote it about being aged 19-22, heavily into shoegaze-ish music, and wanting to start a band to play that kind of music. But we were living in Birmingham, Alabama in the early ’90s. It was not really the ideal place or time for that particular ambition. In those days we were all enamored of fuzz pedals and reverse reverb and playing way too loud (I still love all that stuff, by the way). The song’s title refers to those old cartoons that showed people who were under the influence with Xs for eyes. I took a line in the chorus from a rollercoaster sign at Coney Island, that requires kids to be of a certain height. It shows a little cartoon bear or something, saying, “You must be high as me to ride alone.” But Suzanne misheard me, and thought I was singing “ride along”–which I thought was an improvement. Sonically and stylistically, this song evokes a little of the shoegaze era a bit, while still hopefully sounding of a piece with the rest of the record.

[photographs courtesy Great Lakes]