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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

It's my first post! I have to talk about my current favorite band!

Hubcap City (from Belgium) used to be just Hubcap City. Formed in 1999 from the ashes of my other favorite band, Smoke (you'll hear from them later), Hubcap City were "the band" for me. You know what I mean. In high school, they were the band I saw more than any other, the band who converted me from a fanboy going to huge arenas to a fanboy going to tiny clubs (and, sometimes, under bridges). They were the band I first idolized, then got to know, soon realizing that, not only were they mere humans, but that that was their most godlike quality.
Back then it was just Bill Taft on guitar and vocals and Will Fratesi on random percussion. About two years ago, Bill let Matthew Proctor join on all sorts of noisemakers, changed the name to Hubcap City (from Belgium) (they're actually from Atlanta), and started letting almost anybody play with them. Sometimes this works out beautifully. Other times it just ends up being about pissing people off as much as possible.
This is from their acoustic show at A Cappella Books in Atlanta, two months ago. In addition to the three core members, they had Kat on violin, and Terry on musical saw. The bookstore had no microphones, so this is just pure, beautiful music. If Hubcap City (from Belgium) were capable of fitting such a clich├ęd description, I'd call it backporch folk music, but this is different, better. Think of an absurdist Charles Bukowski, 50 years younger, with a perfect intuitive grasp of what notes to play at each specific moment, leading a group of people who believe nothing is sacred but quality. Then listen and realize that HC(FB)'s music is just impossible to describe.

Mad House
Unexpected Guest

The Official Hubcap City webpage