For years, it has looked as if modern American music would shatter beneath the shrieks of Miley Cyrus, Katie Perry, and their inescapable cohort of insipid, Auto-Tuned pop tarts. And then came Ben Cameron.
More than any other emerging artist, this young singer, songwriter, and lightning-fingered guitarist offers a glimmer of hope for the prospects for this nation’s popular music. Cameron and his band, The Depressions, have arrived — not a minute too soon.
Step into a store, bar, restaurant, or virtually anywhere with an audio system, and the same dreadful sound soon leeches out: Thin, reedy, interchangeable female voices — as shrill as steel wheels screeching along subway tracks — backed by apparently instrument-free thumps and scratches. Mysteriously, some people actually purchase this annoying blend of aggressively bland noises. Neither brain-dead, helium-light “lyrics” nor an almost total lack of melody disqualify these pop “acts” from the air waves. Deplorable personal behavior, skimpy outfits, arrest records, sexual misadventures, and other extraneous factors generate controversy and, thus, boost these personalities’ sales. Genuine talent has precious little to do with any of this.
And don’t get me started on rap music.
Within this grim, lifeless desert, Ben Cameron is like a perfectly chilled keg of Anchor Steam beside a set of frosted glasses.
I have admired Cameron’s solo work for about two years. Last August, I was fortunate enough to catch him with his new band from Nashville, which the Connecticut native now calls home.
#more#The Depressions’ presence and professionalism were first rate in their one-hour set at a Lower East Side nightclub called Arlene’s Grocery, a former Puerto Rican bodega. This all-around splendid quintet (two fine guitars, a bass, a drummer, and superb keyboardist) exceeded my high expectations.
A Depressions concert is like a wine tasting. Listen to them play, and one detects hints of Creedence Clearwater Revival, notes of Grateful Dead and the Band, and then an Eagles or Paul Simon finish. In no way derivative or plagiarized, The Depressions and their audience both revel in this band’s top-drawer influences. Astute listeners can see how the musical chromosomes of those earlier ensembles have diffused into The Depressions’ DNA.
The Depressions also triumphed on November 20 at Le Poisson Rouge in Greenwich Village. An exuberant, lovely crowd heard the band play its own songs as well as a wide and electrifying selection of cover tunes. Cameron opened with a few lines from Billy Joel’s “I’ve Seen the Lights Go Out on Broadway,” a timely and much-appreciated reference to Hurricane Sandy and its aftermath.
They turned our power down,
And drove us underground
But we went right on with the show . . .
Repeated nods to those who have informed The Depressions kept the standing-room audience leaping on its toes: Grateful Dead’s “Shakedown Street,” Paul Simon’s “The Obvious Child” and an exquisite rendition of “Graceland,” Joel’s “Scenes from an Italian Restaurant,” Phish’s “Suzie Greenberg,” and the night’s biggest and most pleasant surprise — a jam-band-infused reading of Lionel Ritchie’s “All Night Long.”
Cameron — The Depressions’ leader, chief vocalist, and songwriter — is a younger, thinking man’s James Taylor. The 29-year-old is an outstanding tenor with a unique voice. (He sings like Taylor, but also suggests Cat Stevens — without the latter’s Islamic extremism.) Cameron’s vocals gently fill the band’s very catchy folk-country-rock tunes and are the perfect instrument for conveying his incredibly intelligent and literate lyrics. Unlike 95 percent of today’s new musicians, Cameron actually devotes thought — and plenty of it — to the words that he sings.
The delightfully titled “I Think I Know I Love You,” for instance, features this perfect example of Cameron’s unapologetic romanticism:
So if you want it then take it, my heart out in the open.
We’ll make breakfast every morning
We’ll make love without a warning.
Then fall into bed knowin’ it wasn’t just a dream
But what would they look like, our not so picket fences?
Those domestic trenches,
Oh, Hello. I’m gone again,
Would you have a little faith that I could give you what you need?
“Stones” presents a Dylanesque, rapid-fire flurry of images of love gone wrong, all connected via Cameron’s very clever wordplay and highly confident command of verse and meter:
I used to do a bit of moving and shaking,
Late night quaking, early morning baking.
Wasn’t too hard to get myself lost
In the eyes of the party girl, but to what cost?
Of waking up, head full of troubles,
Baby’s blowin’ bubbles round the confines of my room.
I smell doom in her sweet perfume,
Just chalk it up to another sad groom, a love rubble.
Now I wake up alone, but I’m not throwing stones.
These touching lyrics come from the song, “Two Happy Fools (and a Dog Gone Crazy).”
I wear my blessings on my sleeve,
I can’t believe that I have you around.
You let me soar on up like the bluest moon,
You keep my feet flat here on the ground.
And since I’ve found you,
It’s a Wednesday evening, fill my cup with love
How fine are you and I,
We’re just two happy fools and a dog gone crazy.
These songs appear on The Depressions’ captivating debut album Pas Tout La. This esoteric title is Cajun French for “not all there.” As Cameron explains, “My sister-in-law is from New Iberia, Louisiana, and I’ve spent a fair amount of time among the Acadians absorbing their stories, digesting their food, and enjoying their song.”
Also worthy is Cameron’s solo effort, a self-titled album. It has touches of Dire Straits, whiffs of Dave Matthews, and — occasionally — echoes of the latter-day Beatles. Cameron also conceives cryptic song titles, such as “Eggshells and Consequences” and “Soldiers, etc.”
Cameron and his band are making fans among critics in their musically sophisticated home town.
“Ben Cameron possesses two of my favorite new voices,” writes Peter Cooper of The Tennessean. “He sings with one and writes with the other. And now he’s made an album worthy of praise and envy.” According to Jack Silverman of Nashville Scene, “This is rare and special music, and unlike anything coming out of Nashville right now.”
But can Ben Cameron and The Depressions prosper beyond the Volunteer State?
I fear that they may be too good for the increasingly pitiful taste of the average listener whose ear drums have been dumbed down by sadistic rap, Kleenex-like Britney pop, and that massive, anesthetizing karaoke act, American Idol. However, I would love to be proved wrong.
The most encouraging omen for the future of American popular music would be for Ben Cameron and The Depressions to become a runaway hit. It would be immeasurably refreshing for these smart, highly skilled musicians to succeed — not due to absurd costumes, scandals, and mayhem, but thanks simply to their epic musicianship.