Ben de la Cour – The High Cost of Living Strange
Flour Sack Cape – 6 April 2018
Born in London, but raised in Brooklyn and now based in Nashville by way of a lengthy stint in New Orleans, The High Cost of Living Strange is Ben de la Cour’s fourth album but, I have to confess, the first I’ve heard of him. My loss. I have no idea how this stands up against his previous material, but, trading in what he terms Americanoir, it’s evident that he’s studied at the musical feet of dust country troubadours like van Zandt and Clark. Indeed, one of the album stand-outs happens to be titled Guy Clark’s Fiddle, a gently strummed, wearily sung number about regrets, broken dreams and how “in the end, not everything is wanting to be fixed.” The influences can also be heard on Uncle Boudreaux Went Down To Texas, a poignant story about trying to figure out where you belong as recounted through the singer’s memory of a relative who regaled everyone with his stories of his adventures in the Lone Star State and how got to meet Townes, but who, in fact never got closer to Texas than “Willie’s Greatest Hits.”
Billy Contreras on fiddle, the album opens on an uptempo southern swing with handclaps driving along the rhythms for Dixie Crystals. But it’s the slower, more reflective material that stands out most, the twanged guitar underpinning the rolling rhythm of Company Town and its grim portrait of the damage done to small town communities by corporate America. Equally pointed is the introspective Face Down Penny, another musical Clark echo, with its Dylanish harmonica and circling strummed acoustic guitar pattern.
If you’re wondering where the noir comes in, then give an ear to Tupelo, a claustrophobic fiddle scraping slow Southern Gothic prowl about a guy picking up a female hitchhiker desperate to get out of the titular town, the ominous mood growing as the journey progresses and the track turns into a murder ballad.
Far too short at just eight tracks and 31 minutes, it winds down with, first the fingerpicked Just Like The Blues with its playfully pessimistic dead man walking lyrics and, finally, turning the musical template on its head by cranking up the amps and fuzz for the darker title track’s swampy electric slide guitar swagger about “a young man singing an old man’s blues”, with its observation that “if you ask for nothing, nothing’s all you get” but that “the harder you lean on something, the harder it will let you down.” This album won’t.