Preview Choke Cherry Tree by Ben Miller Band.
Choke Cherry Tree by Ben Miller Band
More than a musical genre, punk is a state of mind. It’s a heady mixture of raw energy, rebellion and DIY creativity. The Ben Miller Band harnesses that punk spirit to create a fiery and beguiling set of blues, folk and rock music for their latest album, Choke Cherry Tree.
Fans of the Ben Miller Band will find this new album familiar in many ways. As with their previous outings, the album’s tracks swing back and forth from folk and country to fuzz-toned rock and electric boogie blues. The band’s distinctive sound comes, in part, from the collection of homemade instruments—a one-string, washtub bass, an electric guitar whose body appears to be a cigar box, a microphone made from the receiver of an old rotary telephone—that Miller and company mix in with standard-issue mandolin, banjo, slide guitar, drums, and fiddle. It is fierce, stomping roots music that conjures up sweaty dive bars and clubs packed with ecstatic audiences.
And yet Choke Cherry Tree offers clear signs of growth and change for the band. Their idiosyncratic musical arrangements have a studio polish that heightens the unique identity of each song. Chris Funk, a member of the Decemberists, produced this album, and he brought in several guest musicians to more fully realize the songs. The opening track “Nothing Gets Me Down” is an excellent example. In form, it’s a traditional, folk song, yet it strays into psychedelic territory thanks to an artful layering of instruments.
After that peaceful opening, the band kicks into high gear with “Akira Kurosawa,” an homage to the Japanese film director that New West Records released in November as a preview of the album. Fuzz-tone guitar opens the song with a rock-solid blues riff before the whole band jumps in. It’s a big-sounding song with echoing drums and a simple sing-along chorus. Beneath the storm of the music, the song offers impressionistic snatches of movie scenes and philosophical musings on the power of storytelling.
The play says that we’re just shadows cast on that cabin wall
Shakespeare says that we’re all actors and we all gotta play a little part
Ben Miller’s bandmates, Rachel Ammons, Bob Lewis and Scott Leeper, match him in their ability to play multiple roles, wielding a variety of instruments. In particular, Ammons’ clear and expressive voice expands the band’s sound, taking the lead vocal in several spots, most notably on “Redwing Blackboard,” an eerie, haunting and powerful tune that features 12-string guitar, fiddle and flute leads.
The album has its share of upbeat rock and blues tunes. The highlight is “Life of Crime,” which is built around an infectious disco drum beat, chugging boogie blues guitar, hand claps, strategic wah-wah-like effects and something that sounds like record scratching. It’s a hard-partying song. “One More Time” and “Big Boy” are cut from similar blues rock cloth.
If there’s a theme to the album, it might be the idea of life as performance. Many of the songs on the album are miniature movies in which Miller takes on the perspective of a character. On “Lighthouse,” a country ballad with echoes of gospel and of The Band, Miller employs the metaphor of a seaside signal tower to outline the pain of unrequited love. On “Trapeze,” he is a death-defying circus performer who prefers the thrill of following his passion rather than playing it safe.
Come one, come all, come to watch me fall
No net to catch me if I lose my grip
Come one, come all, it’s fun to watch me fall
Off of that high trapeze
It’s a jaunty, light-sounding tune that features accordion and mandolin, fiddle and tuba, to deliver an existential message.
Our lives are going to end as sure as they begin,
And any minute you could come down here and do us in.
So what if it’s shortened? It ain't the length that’s important
It’s to answer to the life that we’re called.
The song exemplifies the album—serious and serious fun that rewards repeated listens.