A debut LP worryingly suitable for soundtracking saccharine mobile phone ads.
Chris Lo 2011
These days, picking up an acoustic guitar must be an intimidating thing. With the likes of Bon Iver, Laura Marling and Fleet Foxes emerging in the last few years, melodic acoustic music is a very crowded party. Then again, with the heritage of acoustic songwriters stretching back from Elliott Smith to Nick Drake and beyond, it probably always has been. In such a well-ploughed field, new artists practically have to spout fireworks to stand out.
Such is the challenge that lies before 21-year-old Benjamin Francis Leftwich with his debut LP, Last Smoke Before the Snowstorm. The York-based singer-songwriter has certainly garnered the requisite attention, with two well-received EPs in late 2010 and early 2011, not to mention a popular cover of Arcade Fire’s Rebellion (Lies). But how does Leftwich’s debut proper stack up with his many talented peers?
At first, everything seems in order. Opener Pictures exudes prettiness with a simple plucked guitar line accompanied by Leftwich’s whispery voice, while Box of Stones opens up into a delicate, violin-backed chorus. But as the album progresses, soft guitar following soft guitar and hushed vocal stacked on hushed vocal, it gradually dawns that prettiness might be the only trick up its sleeve. The sheer repetition of tone is an almost insurmountable problem here, each track fading into the next with little to separate them. Leftwich’s songs have been described as melancholic, but in reality there’s little to no emotional pull in any direction. The album’s lyrics provoke an equally ambivalent response, wafting vaguely from broad generalities to cloying sentimentality ("Hope you find what you’re looking for / So your heart is warm forever more," he trills on Shine).
The title-track, with its more band-oriented sound, provides a brief highlight simply for the momentary break in tone, but it’s too little, too late. Like a celebrity mansion on MTV Cribs, Last Smoke Before the Snowstorm is solidly built and designed to make a great first impression, but with time feels lacking in character and, ultimately, empty. In the end, it’s an album whose shallow loveliness makes it worryingly suitable for soundtracking saccharine mobile phone ads.