srijeda, 6. studenoga 2013.

Mutual Benefit - Love's Crushing Diamond (2013)

Elegična pop-simfonija za milovanje ljudskog krzna epskim čekićima.

Mutual Benefit's newest offering is an emotional one, ripe with tender evocations of a love that just won't take. It would be hard to believe anyone who said this record is not in response to a great loss. We've all been there. Teetering on the border between letting go and great hope, Jordan Lee sculpted Love's Crushing Diamond to perfectly capture the dark pit of the unfortunately frequent and very real human state of vulnerability.
Each song accomplishes a very distinct purpose. Jordan will bring the listener back to very happy times, times when we wish we had behaved differently, times we wish we could erase... This violent back and forth gives off the impression that Jordan is toying with our emotions. In all honesty, it's remarkably exhausting, and at the end, we feel at peace. Jordan restores a much needed balance during a time of uncertainty.
We are warning you now, do not be afraid to let the emotions wash over you. Do not be afraid to cry. Do not be afraid to laugh. Do not be afraid to worry. Do not be afraid to experience a whole new echelon of fear. Jordan wants you to give into all these emotions while you navigate his 32-minute present. Watch yourself as you listen. Do you get angry or feel like you're too good for the record's message? They're wonderful coping mechanisms, anger and avoidance, but they'll only leave you worse off, grasping at straws when you realize it might be too late. So do yourself a favor, forgive and dive in.
I challenge you to imagine a scenario as you listen. You're in the orient, floating down a winding river. The only thing keeping you company is your thoughts. As the river twists and turns, you ask yourself where it will take you. You pass around a bend, and the countryside explodes into color. The sun beams down on your face. The vast expanse overwhelms you. Past doubts and worries dissolve. Fear is eliminated. We were made to be afraid, but you are perfectly serene. Prepare for a journey, close your eyes, and press play.

We were made to be this way. We were made to be afraid.- Jonathan Abramson

So often in music writing, you search for something that is as ambitious as it is pure. It happens so rarely. You find certain pieces of music you love, you identify with, you treasure. Still, you long for something great, maybe even challenging. Like the beginning of so many epics, when surrounded by the familiar, you long for adventure. Mutual Benefit’s Love’s Crushing Diamond proves to be daring and audacious and everything I’ve been looking for. Frontman Jordan Lee has crafted songs that stand alone but together tell a story. Something about some nights in the summer or fall or winter or spring, something about growing up and falling in love and floating in the sea. Paired with profoundly moving production, the record as a whole is simultaneously a heavy, leather-bound fairytale and the comfortable Moleskine journal you keep in your dresser drawer. There are mountains and valleys, with pieces of your heart like breadcrumbs throughout.

Layers of vocals and strings and clear guitar lines leave you with your hand unapologetically out the car window. Moments like “Golden Wake” and “Let’s Play” / “Statue of a Man” are more lighthearted but hold the same weight of the wing-spanning songs on the record—your “quiet thoughts get louder” and “stumble to a cave” respectively. These adventures are like those I found driving home from my friend Clarissa’s greenhouses in high school. I would leave early, and there was always hootin’ and hollerin’ behind me as I left the driveway. These were pauses in life where the hot days turned cold from the moon, and I thought, “I was born to be this way,” whatever this way may end up being.

Those same layers of instruments and harmonies leave you in the summer grass behind your childhood home. “Advanced Falconry,” a cinematic standout on this record, races against the outer layer of your skin. It gives your whole exterior that tingly feeling, like pressing your hands in fresh snow. “To stare into the void and see a friendly face; and find meaning in a word in a moment of rare grace,” Lee proclaims, suggesting this is anything but accidental. These songs are beautiful and pressingly so because that’s how he sees the world. They’re dreamlike without being adolescent. They’re sincere without being trite. They’re moving without being forceful. This adventure is something like driving on a dark highway alone. It reminds me of this summer, driving by myself from Syracuse to Memphis, singing any song as loud as I could. If I had nothing else, I had wheels, not unlike the ability to fly.

Love’s Crushing Diamond closes with “Strong Swimmer,” an allegory of sorts about losing yourself and losing others. When you swim too far out, when you forget these moments of pause and reflection, you can get lost in between the waves. In a split second, you disappear. “You told me you had stashed away a note that would explain the way you felt if we would ever find you gone; the river only knows to carry on, the river only knows to carry on.” We’re offered a farewell that gingerly reminds us to move forward; a friendly reminder that cinematic moments exist, but like all moments, are temporary. Reflect, but don’t over indulge your nostalgia. You have a whole life ahead of you—more journeys await.-

Jordan Lee’s recordings as Mutual Benefit have been sparse, releasing just the occasional small-run tape or split 7-inch, but his voice has resonated in certain corners of the underground,” we wrote of the sprawling, slow pop song “Advanced Falconry,” marked by long bows of violin, loops of guitar plucks, backing harmonies sung in falsetto. “The most immediately engaging element though, is Lee’s lovely voice, both whispery and full of sincerity.” Now, Lee’s latest album Love’s Crushing Diamond is available to stream in full. It’s a no-filler collection of gorgeous group efforts; Lee’s lyrics sound like conversations he’s been having inside his head for a while, layered with instrumentals and harmonizing and found sounds contributed by friends. Another highlight is the heartbreaking but hopeful “Golden Wake.” “And in the water I could see / A piece of what you broke in me,” sings Lee conversationally, later repeating a more uplifting mantra: “We weren’t made to be this way / We weren’t made to be afraid.” -

Mutual Benefit’s proper debut LP Love’s Crushing Diamond can be described in a number of simple ways: loving, patient, warmhearted, unfailingly hopeful. Pretty much the utmost qualities you’d want out of a human being, right? Those descriptors are certainly less trustworthy when applied to art, as they’re often considered the byproducts of complacency, or at least a warning sign. Whenever a band comes along that people tell you is “necessary," they’re probably ripping shit up, telling you what to think, espousing conflict against music and listeners that got a little too comfy. Mutual Benefit isn’t revolutionary and Love’s Crushing Diamond is not going to judge you. But in no way is Jordan Lee a complacent songwriter. In fact, throughout this collection of seven gorgeous, baroque-folk songs, he’s dealing in perhaps the most pervasive and difficult internal battle of all: how can you be a loving, patient, warmhearted and unfailingly hopeful person in an environment that makes it far easier to not give a shit?
A good start is to surround yourself with fellow warriors of the meek—Mutual Benefit brings to mind the “collective” format, “Animal” or otherwise, that played a large role in defining the tone of indie rock during the early 2000s. Think of Microphones, Sparklehorse, Danielson FamileAkron/Family, early Sufjan Stevens and Devendra Banhart, where an open-ended “band” surrounds a central voice seeking to explore the ideas of what “folk” or roots music really means. Mutual Benefit certainly qualifies, though not in the way that equates “folk” with rusticity, an acoustic guitar and rigid verse-chorus structure. Songs invariably rise out of twenty or so seconds of everyone getting situated, tapping out piano riffs, trying to get the percussion in rhythm and determining who’s going to sing. From there on out, there’s often contain one central melody and a clearly elucidated mood that spools throughout, while the arrangements are surprising and intuitive, like everyone involved might be swapping instruments as it goes along.
The sound here is proudly analog, though not lo-fi, and Lee’s songs are thick, but not dense. Beginning with his lightly enunciated vocals, soft strands are collected and continuously bundled throughout and nuzzled by reverb without being smothered by it, a big ball of sonic yarn to fall into. Some curious threads peek through to add a shock of color: the banjo lacing Lee’s awestruck infatuation on “Advanced Falconry”, household percussion clacking throughout “‘Let’s Play’/Statue of a Man”, gentle, female harmonies and a steady drum machine tick lending comfort to a wayward drug addict on “That Light That's Blinding” and an indeterminate synthesized instrument playing the glowing riff that explains the title of “Golden Wake."
On that particular song, a riverside meditation leads Lee to quitting his job and realizing “we weren’t made to be afraid.” That’s a major part of the plot engine in cubicle revenge fantasy Office Spaceand a motivating thread throughout the majority of chillwave, another genre thought to be a reaction to an increasingly hostile and hopeless time for socioeconomics. But Love’s Crushing Diamond is not folk in the escapist sense either, though it was recorded during a “year of notable absences” in San Diego, Austin and Boston. Many of these songs take place in mundane, unglamorous locales—city trains, mining towns, cornfields, motel rooms. And in Lee's point of view, you need to discover a little space within those places that you can call your own and then invite some people to share it with. Yeah, it does skew kinda hippie, as Lee’s lyrics detail picking roses by the lake and how a river can’t help but keep on keepin’ on. That’s perfectly fine within the scheme of Love’s Crushing Diamond, which always sounds populated in a way that stresses its central themes of getting your own shit together so you’re better prepared to care for someone else.
This kind of perspective gives Mutual Benefit an unintended timeliness as well. As much as you want to consider music objectively, without some kind of sociological context, think of it this way: when Sufjan, Animal Collective and freak-folk came about, any afterglow of post-9/11 togetherness had given way to a terribly divisive and dirty presidential election, an escalating, vaguely defined war and a general sense that the country was being bullied into submission from the inside. This sort of music would inevitably be criticized for being apolitical and wimpy, but having seen where all this aggression got us, how could Sung Tongs or Cripple Crow not seem like the solution?
Love’s Crushing Diamond works in a similar way and opens itself up to some of the same criticisms, when being positive is the quickest way to have your sincerity questioned. Lee concedes these points without giving in, and makes the case that kindness is in no way a sign of weakness: Diamond’s seven-minute, closing reverie “Strong Swimmer” acknowledges that it takes an Olympian level of strength to swim against the tide of negativity, but it’s the only choice. During “‘Let’s Play/Statue of a Man,” Lee sings “There’s always love/when you think there’s none to give”, true whether it’s “tattered, strained or torn.” I can’t think of a statement that sounds more necessary. - Ian Cohen

The Cowboy's Prayer (2011)     


  • Feb 2011
  • Jan 2011
  • Oct 2010
  • Apr 2010
  • Dec 2009

    Mutual Benefit
    Love’s Crushing Diamond, the first full-length release after many EPs and singles from Mutual Benefit, is the sort of elegaic celestial symphony-in-miniature that fans of Youth Lagoon, Sufjan Stevens, Mercury Rev, the Microphones, and Radiohead’s “Motion Picture Soundtrack” will adore. The record’s seven song-suites somehow sound like intimate cuddling and expansive world-building at once. As ever, it’s the creative outpouring of Jordan Lee, an itinerant 25-year-old whose journey spans from suburban Ohio to Austin, Boston, St. Louis and Brooklyn.
    Lee’s been grabbing a lot of attention in the months since we first posted single “Advanced Falconry” in July. Increasing online buzz and stunning performances like the band’s CMJ showcase ensured that when the new Brooklyn micro-label Soft Eyes Records released Love’s Crushing Diamond this fall, demand far outstripped the limited supply. So Other Music Recording Co., the label affiliated with the legendary East Village record store Other Music, is reissuing the LP on 12/3.
    In the meantime, Lee is transitioning from Boston to Brooklyn, working on songs for the next Mutual Benefit release and grappling with his music’s sudden transformation from passion project to career. I caught up with him earlier this afternoon to discuss his wanderlust, the suffering among friends that inspired Love’s Crushing Diamond, the serendipity that has always spurred Mutual Benefit along, and much more.
    STEREOGUM: How are you?
    JORDAN LEE: I’m a little nervous; this is my first phone interview, so you have to go easy on me.
    STEREOGUM: Haha, will do. I noticed on Bandcamp that your discography as Mutual Benefit goes back to about ’09. Were there any projects before that? What was your musical history before that?
    LEE: Yeah, well if you wanna go way, way back, I was definitely in some pop punk bands in high school. But to get a little closer to what I’m doing now, I was making pop music under my own name probably since I was 17 or so. It was pretty straightforward, verse, chorus, bridge kinda stuff. I was really inspired by stuff like Elliott Smith where I could — I forget what record “Speed Trials” was on, but I remember hearing that song and being like, “Oh whoa, I can record music that’s like his voice doubled and acoustic guitar and drums and that’s it.” So I started kinda making songs like that. And it wasn’t until I moved to Texas right after high school that I guess I got into more like noise stuff and I fried my brain a little bit with psychedelics and, I don’t know, I just kinda stopped trying to make traditional pop music and got more interested in using field recordings and making non-traditional sounds, maybe running signals through a broken karaoke machine or something like that instead of guitar-based stuff.
    STEREOGUM: You mentioned moving to Texas, but I noticed your phone number is an Ohio number. Did you grow up in Ohio?
    LEE: I did! Yeah, I grew up in a suburb of Columbus. Somewhere that is totally unremarkable in almost every way.
    STEREOGUM: Yeah, I actually grew up in the suburbs of Columbus as well.
    LEE: Oh really, which one?
    STEREOGUM: I actually still live in Columbus, believe it or not, I grew up in Westerville.
    LEE: Oh damn! I grew up in Pickerington.
    STEREOGUM: I ran some cross country meets in Pickerington.
    LEE: You know, I really do think that Ohio breeds some really interesting people. When I’m traveling around it’s like, if I meet someone great, they’re also from Ohio.
    STEREOGUM: Awesome. So you moved to Texas after high school and eventually you ended up in Boston, right?
    LEE: Mmhmm.
    STEREOGUM: Is that where Mutual Benefit got started?
    LEE: Yeah, well, Mutual Benefit started as a recording project in Texas, but it definitely — I very deliberately moved to Boston to meet up with some musicians I had really been wanting to play with and that’s where it became more of a real thing where we played live. Yeah, one of my Ohio friends I grew up with and we played together for years, he went to Berklee and I moved to Texas, and we made a deal that once he graduated, we would meet up again and try to do this for real.
    STEREOGUM: That reminds me: Does the band have a fixed lineup? Is it a more fluid lineup? How does that work?
    LEE: Oh yeah, it’s very fluid. At this point I can do a solo set if I need to and I can use loops and samples and all of that, but I’d much prefer to have a group of people to play with. It really, at this point, has been really circumstantial. When I first moved to Boston, I was kinda living like a crust punk and sleeping on the floors of rehearsal spaces and couches and kinda trying to get my bearings. And so stuff as silly as — I didn’t even have an amp — and so the lineups would just kinda be like, “Who’s around? Who has a space to play? Who can take off work to go on a two week tour?” And so sometimes we’d have a drummer, sometimes we wouldn’t. And yeah, it’s kinda fun to try to adapt to the environment. It’s a real growing experience.
    STEREOGUM: Are you still based in Boston? I know your Bandcamp says some stuff about Brooklyn. Are you back and forth?
    LEE: Yeah, for the time being I’m back and forth. I’ve lived in Boston for about three years, and this September I decided not to resign my lease because I feel like Brooklyn’s kinda like a black hole, it’s just sucking me that direction. So I’ll probably be based out of there as soon as I can save up for a security deposit. But yeah, it’s hard for me to stay in one spot for longer than a couple of months without getting the itch to bounce around.
    STEREOGUM: I guess that probably lends itself to touring pretty well.
    LEE: Yeah, absolutely. I think there’s a certain head space that you get in while you tour where you’re meeting new people and you’re having a new experiences every day. It kinda shakes off any mindless habits that you have, and it forces you to be in the present, and I think that I’ve gotten addicted to that feeling. [laughter] I wish I could figure out how to do it and have a steady life somehow, but as of now I have to be on the road for a quarter of the year.
    STEREOGUM: So, your new record — would you consider this your first full-length record? I know they’re all kind of different lengths.
    LEE: Yeah, I guess labels aren’t super important to me, but I feel like it’s a complete thought. And I know that it borders on the short side to be a full-length, but I would consider it a full-length record.
    STEREOGUM: So when you say it’s a complete thought, what were you thinking about? What inspired the record?
    LEE: Well, the project started either late 2011 or early 2012. I had been on the road a lot, and I was really into field recording. So I really liked recording jams, or if we were at a house with a piano, recording the piano or the windchime on the porch and trying to keep my ears open to things that would be cool to manipulate or loop. So it didn’t really have the thematic idea yet, but I guess some people that were close to me were really struggling with heavy stuff and it’s more so than I’d ever had to deal with before where I’m kind of powerless watching people that I love being hurt. And so that was on my mind a lot, to the point where it was hard to feel good about things, you know? Hard to be excited to be in this world. And so, there was a friend who I grew up with, another Ohio friend, who offered me a cheap room in St. Louis for as long as I needed it. So I kind of bounced out of Boston and hung out in St. Louis and worked on writing a lot of music and writing down my thoughts, and that’s kinda how the album came about. It’s funny to me, and interesting that people are excited to listen to it — at least some people are. Because to me it was almost 100 percent therapeutic. It was just like, “I gotta get this thing off my chest, and then I’m gonna understand how to feel.” And so now, I’m really proud of it in that sense. Basically the conclusion I came to that I hope is conveyed through the record is that there are gonna be seasons of devastation that happen in your life, and for me, the only way to get through it was to stop thinking about things in binary terms of whether they’re good or bad. It’s a really elementary Buddhist thought: It just is, this is what’s happening and that’s it. So I think the record’s a lot about — not giving up, but just letting go. It kind of goes back to the idea of fluidity. I used to intern at a recording studio in Austin, Texas, so after a lot of it was written in St. Louis, I spent time in Texas adding a lot of layers and synthesizers and stuff like that. And then I finished it up in Boston and felt kind of a weight lifted off of me. So I really don’t know what the next record is gonna be. It kind of started the same way where I have a lot of sounds that I’ve recorded that I’m excited about, but I haven’t figured out how to put them together yet.
    STEREOGUM: How long has this one been done?
    LEE: It’s been finished … I think it’s only a couple months old.
    STEREOGUM: It’s cool to have a quick turnaround. I know so many bands when they get into a label system they end up having to wait six months or more to release their album after it’s done.
    LEE: Oh yeah, no, this one was really backwards. I had no expectations for — I guess once you work on a thing for long enough, you don’t know if it’s good anymore. And so to me, it was such a selfish endeavor — I need to make this myself. So Cory and Marc, my two really good friends in Brooklyn who play in Lizard Kisses, they started up a small label called Soft Eyes and said that they would release my record the minute it was done. So that’s what I did, and basically it got more attention than any of us were expecting. So basically it made more sense to do the repressing through a bigger label that had the infrastructure to support a lot of people trying to buy it. ’Cause even trying to ship 200 LPs is super overwhelming, especially since I don’t have a permanent home right now. So totally backwards. I’m sure the label wishes that I hadn’t released it so they could’ve done a regular hype-cycle and done a couple singles and stuff like that, but it’s out!
    STEREOGUM: What’s the other label that’s putting it out?
    LEE: It’s called Other Music Recording Company.
    STEREOGUM: Based out of the store in New York?
    LEE: Yeah yeah, I’m actually really psyched to work with them. I guess I’ve been really cautious about stepping into kind of some more traditional label kind of things because it’s been really fulfilling the past couple of years to fly under the radar and play for 30 or 40 people in a living room or basement and kind of feel like I’m connected and friends with all of them at the end of the night. It’s a lot different of an experience to be marketed, and play for a couple hundred people and, you know, not have a connection with them. And so the last couple of weeks have been a little stressful where it’s like, “What do I want to be doing?” It’s cool because it’s a lot more sustainable of a lifestyle to do it this way financially, but it’s also pretty tricky to mix the thing that makes you happy with the thing that’s paying your bills.
    STEREOGUM: Certainly.
    LEE: But I’m happy to be working with them as opposed to other indie labels because half of what they’ve put out so far has been not in English. They did a really cool neo-classical Swedish chamber pop record, I don’t even know what to call it! And a Brazilian psych-rock record. And so at least out the gate I won’t be pigeonholed as some new-Americana kind of thing. [laughter] I’ll stay unclassifiable for a while.
    STEREOGUM: I heard that Brazilian band and otherwise I knew that Nude Beach record came out on Other Music, but I didn’t know what else was out there.
    LEE: Yeah, I think they’ve only worked with five or six bands so far. Still a pretty new label.
    STEREOGUM: You mentioned field recording and that sorta thing. Is some of the sound on Love’s Crushing Diamond a product of field recording?
    LEE: Oh, absolutely, yeah. For instance, the song “Golden Weight,” that sort of drum machine sound in the background was — I was staying at a house and they had this super cool organ, so I recorded some sounds on the organ with the microphone really far away and then wrote the rest of the song on top of that. That was kind of a breakthrough moment for me because somehow the mixing of a lo-fi room-based sound with close-mic overdubs made the aesthetic really interesting to me. Also the piano riff on “That Light That’s Blinding” was something that we made after a show in Ann Arbor, Michigan. We just played this 20-minute stoned jam and that one little moment in there was really beautiful to me, so I wrote something on top of that.
    STEREOGUM: Is there anything I haven’t asked that seems like it would be important to talk about?
    LEE: Well, something I guess that’s interesting to me is that since Mutual Benefit started I feel like a lot of it has been — maybe cosmic is the right word. I haven’t had a lot of ambition, but just a lot of little things happened that have been really helpful. Even for this record, I’ve always dreamt of having string sections in my songs but had never been able to afford to set any of that up. And Jake, who plays violin throughout the whole album, was a friend of a friend — actually, a friend from Japan. Jake came into my life through touring, and he bounces around between California and New York. I think he settled in Brooklyn now. But when I was living in St. Louis, I recorded all the string parts on a Casio keyboard on the violin setting, and I was pretty happy with it. But Jake for some reason was in Missouri, I think to visit a cousin or something like that, but it just happened to work out that he could take a Greyhound to St. Louis where I was staying, and in a few days, he knocked out all the string parts on the whole album. We worked sun up to sundown. And if it hadn’t have been for that little trip, this album would’ve been totally different. There’s little things like that throughout the whole career of Mutual Benefit that makes me really hopeful that if you kind of keep your mind open and you try to be on the right path it seems like that will happen and kind of encourage you to do the right thing.
    STEREOGUM: Cool story! Thanks for sharing that.
    LEE: And I guess one other thing I’d like to add is that I’ve been trying to do this for the last couple of years, but it’s just been playing DIY shows and, you know, sometimes only playing for the five people that live at the house. So I guess in the last couple of weeks I feel a shift happening. But I’ve been super grateful for the past couple of years. And in that same train of thought as before, there’s definitely been moments where we’ve had a couple of bad shows in a row and we’re not 100 percent sure how we’re going to pay for gas to get to the next spot and something always happens. We’ll play at a show and some guy looks out of place in a polo shirt and is like so moved and will pay $50 for a CD and just wants to make sure we’re set up for the next town. And I think there’s something about putting yourself out there or like, just like, things often work out. I guess I’m reiterating the same thoughts as before, but we have a strange history of coincidences like that.
    STEREOGUM: Well, I hope they keep coming.
    LEE: They seem to be not in short supply lately.
    [Photo by Ali Carter]

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