Written by: Dave Cantrell
Forty plus – actually, add another ‘plus’ – years ago, as part of my art major curricula at Berkeley, we were assigned Giorgio Vasari’s Lives of the Artists. A not flawless piece of work it is nonetheless an astonishing and essential one, first published in 1550, revised in 1568 and never out of print since, the most recent edition issued in 1991. While subject to many critical jabs both in its time and down through the centuries – some carping, most not; scholarship back then wasn’t quite the rigorous discipline it would later become – it remains a work a staggering importance not just as the first overview of its kind but as well for the contemporaneous and, really only, lens into the Italian Renaissance, that burst of matured, expansive, and vital creativity that arguably has never been matched. To be honest, though, I’ve not thought of it often over the intervening decades but realized, reading the one-sheet regarding this latest effort from the brother/sister-helmed project Benjamin Jayne, that it’s the stories behind these (often singular, slightly out-of-the-way) albums – the quirky trails taken, the challenges overcome, the steely-willed devotion to getting the thing done – that are nearly as responsible for the enjoyment gleaned from this sideline writing gig as the music itself. Whether holding up a mirror to our shared experiences or shattering it, it’s what’s behind an album’s making that lends it its depth, it’s essential human context. In a way, for the duration of a record’s length, we live their lives with them, which, one might propose, is why listening to music so often feels an intimate act. An excellent example of this? Theater, released May 7th on WhatAboutMusic.
The tale behind this record is the tale of the band, which is on its own a tale of distance, familial yearning, of love and creative determination or, better said, devotion. Amanda for twenty years has lived in Barcelona, enhancing her already developed skills as a musician during that time, on the one hand, by playing piano and accordion in various traveling bands while on the other plying her trade as a solo artist. An accomplished songwriter and performer in her own right pre-Benjamin Jayne – a number of records under the name Amanda Jayne (also on WhatAboutMusic) – she is by any definition a seasoned artist. The only thing missing? A sense of connection to her brother Benjamin, a guitarist that, also over the span of a couple decades, had studied film scoring and jazz comp at Berklee, played in numerous bands and spent a few years making a living as a multi-instrumentalist-for-hire in and around LA. Eventually switching gears and studying psychiatry (he’s currently a psychiatric nurse practitioner in the Brattleboro area), the brother too sensed an absence, an empty, ever-present Amanda-shaped space that needed filling. Hence, Benjamin Jayne.
Available on all your standard platforms, this second album from the Wright sibs (the foremost balance of labor leaning Benjamin’s way this time as Amanda had just switched careers which doesn’t prevent her presence from being felt throughout) speaks as convincingly as any effort could to the trove of boutique label or self-released independent work lighting up the ten thousand corners of the music universe. Theater, among much else, is a prime exemplar of the near infinite charms and rewards lending themselves as ballast to the havoc that too often clogs the otherwise modern wonder of the internet. Central to that claim in this case is the quietly lush timbre of Theater‘s sound. Deceptively modest to the point of immodesty, the record has no weak spots and therefore no ‘highlights’ per se. Instead, it just unspools itself at its own deliberate pace until you’re pulled into its unassuming web without you really realizing it. Though certainly a by-product of the sheer songcraft on display, significant credit goes to, in band terms anyway, honorary ‘third sibling’ Drew Skinner, enlisted again (as on 2019 debut HI-LO) to engineer and help produce the sessions. Whatever the breakdown of who-did-what, the record’s sound is that sort of up-close gorgeous that can take an essentially acoustic record from ‘Nice’ to ‘Wow, that’s beautiful!’
“Talking Heads,” opening Theater with a gentle lope that’s tucked slyly at times into a subtle drone, references the title’s band ‘only’ in terms of a creative life model, holding them up as a couldn’t-do-better template for the arc of an artist’s life (or, as the industry prefers to call it, ‘career’). As such the track itself serves as something of a template for the quality and depth of the songwriting throughout the album’s running time. “The Sky is Falling”‘s first ten seconds or so could have one thinking they’ve been dropped in to the dark moody realm of a deep-cut EBM groove before revealing itself as an intense, simmering, just-as-dark percussive piece that presents as much as anything like a psych-folk Gil Scott Heron and is one of the more intriguing things we’ve heard all year. Take that intensity and add in startling, integral avant-pop flourishes and you’ve arrived at the title track, while “All Will Wash Away” takes that grand equalizing sentiment and burnishes it in a hushed acoustic beauty that breaks your heart at the same time it fills it with the odd solace of acceptance, admittedly quite the feat for a single track but we ain’t lyin’. “Moonshiner,” meanwhile, suggests Gordon Lightfoot rearisen among the stills and wooded hills of rural Vermont, the delicately frantic “Running Around,” written by Amanda sung by her brother, has a tempest in a teacup aspect to it that speaks to the fact that respite often only comes in the form of collapse.
By the time “Lies Divide,” as devotional in tone as it is confessional, closes the album on an extraordinarily complex-but-direct note, we realize we’ve once again just spent the better part of an hour in the presence of artists whose lives and work we were unaware of just a few weeks ago. It is, frankly, why we do this. There is no money, there’s very little renown to be had (an understatement), but there is this unmatched – in fact unmatchable – joy. Of discovery, yes, but more to the point, of the unalloyed marvel that is the music itself. Art is life, we’re convinced, and albums like Theater only make that all the more abundantly clear. [pick up a digital copy of Theater here]