Garrin Benfield’s “The Wave Organ Song”

One of the biggest disappointments for me is when I attend a show and am so impressed by the musician or band that I buy a CD, only to get home and discover that the CD lacks the energy and vibrancy of what I heard live. Luckily, this is not always the case.  One musician I’ve seen live numerous times who is a unique, talented, and innovative performer is Garrin Benfield, and these characteristics are reflected in his albums. His new album, “The Wave Organ Song,” is a departure from his earlier releases (which feature multi-layered songs and utilize a loop to create sounds of numerous instruments and varying effects) yet just as extraordinary. There is only Garrin and his guitar on “The Wave Organ Song” and the album is real and completely honest in its minimally produced state, allowing the musician alone to carry the weight of each song — not something everyone is capable of doing, but Garrin Benfield is. Although not a themed album, the songs have a common thread in the narration and unfold like one long story.”The Wave Organ Song” is contemplative, and the entire album sounds like a live recording of a rare, significant night at an intimate folk club. The stuff legends are made of.

In the opening track, “Moanin’ Low,” Garrin sings of a far away place and his voice evokes that mysticism. He also sings about not having a place to rest his bones but, contrastingly, the song itself is a comfort. The tone of the guitar is warm, the tempo slow and soothing, and Garrin’s voice is sweet and sincere. Similarly, in “Compass” Benfield sings “I’ve got no way home,” and while that may be true of the character in the song it is not true of the listener, for through his music Garrin Benfield leads you home, reconnecting you with yourself. The third track, “Rock N’ Roll,” is a gently rollicking tune that sounds like an old country song. Backed by finger-picking, Garrin’s voice has a husky sense of urgency, seemingly trying to catch up with something that is fading away. In between verses Garrin wails quietly, the note he sustains with his voice fading into the guitar. It is in this way that the song closes, finally both guitar and voice fading into silence. A folk-blues melody, “Walkin’ Time Blues” is next and is both cheerful and mysterious. The title of the album draws from the lyrics of the song, which talks about sitting by the San Francisco bay and hearing the wave organ song. The guitar accompaniment has a soft sound that is full of depth and contrasts nicely with Garrin’s voice which is similarly full of depth yet strong.

“Are You With Me” is an unusually phrased and captivating song with a hypnotic guitar accompaniment, the perfect backing for Garrin’s soaring vocals, while in the intro to “The Colors of You” Garrin’s voice is reminiscent of Jeff Buckley’s in “Mojo Pin.” The mood of “The Colors In You” is darker and more turbulent than many of the others on the album, but even the pull of the shadows never overrides the ever-present sweetness in Garrin’s voice. It is these opposing forces in every song, the insistent struggle, that makes the music both engaging and relatable. Creeping open with a jazzy energy, opposing forces are also present in the music of “Mexico,” for the guitar serves not just as a guitar but also as an upright bass of sorts, simultaneously decorating the music and grounding it. At times Garrin’s voice is barely more than a whisper, adding to the sly personality of the song. Although “Mexico” is sly, however, “Snakes in the Woodpile” is by far the most unrestful track on the album, and throughout the course of the song we learn that snakes are not in fact just in the woodpile but in courtyards, trees, and veins as well. They “silenced any birds that sang” and there is meaning beyond the literal to be derived from the song. “Believe Me” also has metaphorical meaning when Garrin sings “recieve me, don’t slam the door and lock me out. Please recieve me . . . further and further I slip from the light, if you’re lucky we’ll sleep through the night.” Then, in the quiet waltz-tempo “Don’t Give It Away” guitar mimics voice and the song has an American rusticness to it, chords swelling and rolling in waves behind Garrin’s voice as he pleads with us not to live for the day that may never come.

“Dark and Cold” features a lovely guitar intro, which is not in fact dark and cold but warm and light. The title is misleading because the very first verse states “it’s cold and dark outside, but the feeling is warm in here. I’m wrapped around your love until I disappear.” I first listened when it was actually dark, cold, and raining outside, and although a chill had settled over the brick house my spirit was warm and content. I hit repeat and listened four more times before moving onto “If You’ve Lost Your Way,” which is perhaps the most sentimental. The song evokes end of summer nostalgia, the mythological innocence of youth, the realization that some spark you thought was lost was simply buried inside all along, and more. That leads to the  thirteenth and final track, appropriately placed for it is called “Thirteen.” It was originally written and performed by American musician and songwriter Alex Chilton who died in March of last year, and it’s the only song on the album that was not written by Garrin. Nonetheless, it is a perfectly fitting choice to follow all the previous songs and the tales they contain. This track, too, evokes nostalgia, and with Garrin’s presence it is more than just a song. It is a warm breeze, a smile shared between friends, the allure of love, the open sky of opportunity and promise.

Although each song is performed by a man with a guitar, the album is far from dull. In its entirety it is charming, heartbreaking, uplifting, and pensive. It is the contrasts present in the songs — beautiful poetry tied with sometimes sad realities — that pronounce the majestic grace of “The Wave Organ Song.” Each song is familiar but different from the previous one, and the album is a tapestry of emotions woven into tales. Every nuance in Benfield’s voice, every emphasis, every change in dynamics, and even every silence creates character in the music. In all its musical perfection the album is first and foremost an expression of the beauty of humanity, and “The Wave Organ Song” is a stunning album of lyrical beauty and power.

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