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Tuesday, February 21, 2006

Now for my OTHER favorite band

So you listened to Hubcap City (from Belgium) yesterday and are wondering "Where can I get more of Bill Taft's amazing music?"
As long as you don't mind getting a completely different side of him, you're in luck.
My all-time favorite band, Smoke, came from the ashes (get it?) of the local Atlanta band, the Opal Foxx Quartet.
Originally consisting of Benjamin on vocals, Brian Halloran on cello, and Todd Butler on guitar, Smoke almost immediately grew to include Bill Taft on cornet and banjo, and Tim Campion on drums. Coleman Lewis soon replaced Todd Butler on guitar, and this lineup recorded the two greatest full-length records of all time.
"But what do they sound like?"
To quote CMJ, "That Smoke's most obvious reference point is Tom Waits is both complimentary and misleading."
Yes, Benjamin sings "with a throat smooth as a lamb, yet dry as a branch not snapping" (Patti Smith, "Death Singing"), but, unlike Tom, it's not an act. After years of smoking (cigarettes and pot), Benjamin couldn't sing a polished note if his life depended on it, while Tom Waits' voice alternates between a forced growl and a clean, if slightly tired, croon. More important than his voice's overall roughness, Benjamin's inflection combines the perfect amounts of drama queen and genuine exhaustion. This is definitely music to sit to.
But, although Benjamin's voice is their best attribute, every other element of the band nearly equals its beauty. Bill's restraint with the cornet matches the best jazz musicians', who know that sitting out for two minutes at a time only makes it all the more powerful when you finally come in and blow everything away, and Bill blows literally everyone away, every time.
Brian's gorgeous cello, in the place where most rock bands would insert a bass, sucks all of the stress right out of your shoulders, leaving you keeled over, not like you just got punched in the stomach, but like you finally learned to stop fighting against gravity and be content with your place on this planet.
And Coleman, who could clearly outsolo Stevie Ray or any of those other assholes, holds back so much that one barely notices the electric guitar, even as he plays his spiderlike combination of rhythm and lead.
Then there's Tim's drumming, that Benjamin initially thought would ruin everything, coming in at all the right times to make you really feel the helplessness of Benjamin's characters.
And those lyrics! Benjamin's style is probably completely unique in the history of music. Combining the wordplay of Stephin Merritt (no this isn't pop) with the internal rhyme and flow of Snoop Dogg (this definitely isn't hip hop) and the tales of pain of Nina Simone (probably Smoke's closest comparison, but, still, on the surface, Smoke sounds nothing like her), these are lyrics you can either mindlessly sing along to, or pay attention to and be occasionally moved to tears.
Today, you get their first release, 1992's "Dog," featuring the lineup of Benjamin, Bill, Todd, and Brian, and their last, 1997's "Hamlet," featuring the full band, before Tim Campion quit to be replaced by Will Fratesi. These were both only released on local Atlanta compilations that are long out of print. Also, just because, I've added "Old Joe Clark" from another out of print compilation.

Old Joe Clark

"Haven't I heard this band somewhere?"
Maybe you saw the 2000 Jem Cohen and Pete Sillen film Benjamin Smoke. Though focused on Benjamin, it includes plenty of footage of the band playing, and is a must-see for anyone who likes these songs.
Unfortunately, we can only talk about Smoke in the past tense, as Benjamin's AIDS finally took him in 1999. So, Bill and Will went on to Hubcap City, Brian and Tim moved away, and Coleman toured with Cat Power two years ago, with Will backing them up. Todd, long after leaving the group, died last year of a genetic disorder.
More information on him can be found here

Smoke's full-length CDs available here
The Opal Foxx Quartet's CD available here


Anonymous Anonymous said...

These songs are beautiful, thank you.

Smoke were amazing, Three of their songs can move me no matter where I am or what I'm doing.
Chad, Awake, & Friends.

10:34 PM  
Blogger jon manyjars said...

Wow, that's so strange... I was just thinking to myself this past week that people don't remember Smoke anymore, and that I should probably post "Hamlet" to my mp3 blog. You rock.

5:31 PM  
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Anonymous Anonymous said...

Your article is very informative and helped me further.

Thanks, David

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Blogger Chaucer Arafat said...

Excellent. The Waits, as you indicated, is an apt comparison on some fronts. I thouroughly enjoyed how you mentioned that Benjamin was "not acting". I love Waits' music, but the vaudeville schtick does become tiresome. Benjamin was singing from genuine experience, and you can feel it.

Love this post, and many thanks for the additional MP3s

11:15 PM  
Blogger D. said...

I'll have to dig out my tape of "Pull!" -- each one unique, i think - xeroxed cover, Chrome /silver ink on the tape itself. Real DIY. I think Taft has also played with the Indigo Girls (at least on some Native American benefit CD - Emily has spoken highly of him)

3:40 PM  
Blogger Noah said...

D., what is "Pull!"?

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