Image courtesy of Radical Face
It was some years ago now that I fell in love with the music of Ben Cooper, and I’ve listened to his Electric President albums and solo releases under the moniker Radical Face so religiously that they’ve become a surrogate home for my ears. It hasn’t always been easy trying to justify publishing news stories and opinion pieces about Cooper’s music on this site, which is first and foremost dedicated to folk music- but we’ve always managed to make some kind of link. However, for this Radical Face album; the long awaited follow-up to 2007 debut Ghosts, and the first in a trilogy of records following the tale of a fictional family, the Northcotes, through its generations, we have had no such trouble justifying as folk music. In fact, this has to be one of the albums most deeply rooted in tradition that we’ve ever reviewed on Timber & Steel- just in a different way than what we’re used to.
The Family Tree: The Roots is dedicated to the first two generations of the Northcotes’ family tree and is narratively based in the 1800s. A challenge that Cooper set himself in the making of this album was to use only the musical tools available from that era to tell the family’s story: piano, voice, guitar, banjo, strings and basic percussion. The result isn’t a traditionally accurate sound- that was never Cooper’s intention. But listening to this album now, one can recognise the enormous potential for the relative stylistic simplicity of this part one of The Family Tree trilogy to provide a wonderful sense of historical context when it is someday joined by (and compared to) part two of the trilogy The Branches and part three The Relatives.
Die hard Radical Face fans amongst our readership must be dying to know- is this album as good as Ghosts? The answer is; yes, it is. But it’s also somewhat different, which I’m sure will lead some people to believe that it’s not as good at all. When I say different- I don’t mean it on like a Dylan going electric scale. The album still reflects all of the hallmarks of Cooper’s songwriting that we’ve come to love; the layers upon layers of stirring instrumentals that fold together and follow classic storyline curves to reach beautiful climaxes. Take “A Pound Of Flesh” for instance. It’s not all that different from songs like “Doorways”. Aside from being brilliant, the constant dancing piano line lays the foundation for the rest of the arrangement to build upon, sinks away and then rises back to the foreground like a brilliant, long-lost memory. You will notice with this song though, and throughout quite a lot of the album, that a section of the arrangement follows a peculiar timing. In this case, three repeating bars. I’ve listened to enough jazz fusion and prog in my days to adapt to unexpected timings, and although it’s only the slightest abnormality, I could understand how it might alienate some listeners. If there’s one constant factor that unifies all walks of pop music it’s that it’s at the very least predictable and comfortable- and despite all its texture and contrast Cooper’s music has always been that. “Family Portrait” is another song that doesn’t do entirely what you expect it to, but what it does do is lovely. Sun drunk and woozy instrumentals break up verses that are, I believe, uncharacteristic of Ben Cooper. One thing I’ve always admired about Cooper’s brand of storytelling is the ambiguity of his words. He tells his own stories, but through imagery and introducing ideas indirectly and subtly which leaves the listener with only the tools to construct their own impression of the song and no instruction manual to tell you what it should have left you with. In this song Cooper strays as close as he’s ever come to a literal, state-the-facts style of storytelling, maybe because there’s so much story to tell. It’s a great song, but one more example of why I would dare to judge the album a little bit “different”.
I can’t help but smile when I think about how much joy this album will provide to so many people. Like me, tens of thousands of people will sit down with this same-but-different offering that’s been so long in the making and feel the way they felt the first time they ever listened to Ghosts, and with the development of the sound, find new reasons to love Radical Face amongst the old ones. The first time you listen to a record, it’s always difficult to imagine that oneday it will feel like home, no matter how much you like it- it’s like moving into a new house. I vividly remember not being able to to listen to The Tallest Man On Earth’s sophomore album for weeks after I got it because I loved the first one so much that I wasn’t ready for something that sounded a lot like it but wan’t the same. I can tell you now that if you loved Radical Face‘s first album, then you will love songs like “Black Eyes”, “Severus Stone”, “Ghost Towns”, “The Dead Waltz” and “Mountains”, which all follow a similar recipe to the most successful and loved Radical Face tracks like “Welcome Home”, “Wrapped In Piano Strings” and “Doorways”. But what’s more, you’ll love songs like “Kin”, “The Moon Is Down”, “Always Gold” and the aforementioned “A Pound Of Flesh” and “Family Portrait”, because they’re what set this album apart from everything you’ve known before. If you’ve been reading carefully, you’d have noticed that I’ve stated, at one point or another, that you will love just about every song on the album- and that’s my point. All in all, the album is every bit as emotive as Ghosts, but not in such a warming, empowering way. For me, this doesn’t take anything away from the experience at all, after all, Electric President‘s Sleep Well album (themed around nightmares, monsters, and over-imaginative fear) is still one of my favourites. Even if you can’t imagine loving it now- you will.
As good as it is, there’s probably not one particular song on The Family Tree: The Roots that will receive as much attention as much as “Welcome Home” has, and will continue to recieve. It’s not an album of singles, that’s for sure. It would be unfair to even suggest that the album should be considered as a whole. The reality of the matter is that this album is one of three parts, and while the notion of an album trilogy is so remarkably ambitious that I’m not even remotely surprised that Ben Cooper had to resort to releasing the trilogy independently, I truly believe that when this body of work is completed, the finished product will be a work of genius.
“A Pound of Flesh” - Radical Face