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April 7, 2008 | by  | in Music |
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Album Review – Dudley Benson – The Awakening

In 2006 I saw Dudley Benson play an opening set for the Animal Collective at the San Francisco Bathhouse. A boyish, meek man, Benson performed minimalist pop with accompanying chamber instrumentation from pre-recorded tracks on his iPod, with the occasional spot of live keyboard. I remember being struck first by his earnest sincerity, second by his campness, and third by his bravery.

Here was a performer who, despite the snickerings of a large crowd unsure of whether what they were witnessing was some sort of grand, sophisticated joke, kept on with his performance as if his life depended on it. Whilst I, too, wasn’t wholly convinced until the end of the set that Benson was actually serious, I had to respect the man’s audacity.

The Awakening is Benson’s first full-length record, and is both as naïve and sincere as the performance I witnessed in 2006. The songs here are fragile and wispy, but surely crafted. Over thin instrumentation consisting mostly of softly struck piano and harpsichord melodies and wavering strings, Benson’s voice rises and falls, recounting childhood illness (‘Asthma’), youthful explorations of the hillside (‘On the Shoulders of the Earth’), and vivid, haunting descriptions of historical events and figures, notably 19th Century child murderess Minnie Dean (‘It’s Akaroa’s Fault’).

This bare bones approach allows Benson’s simple melodies to glide and wander, creating a subtly affecting soundscape of atmospheric noise. The best example here is the ethereal ‘Rapaki’, where a Gregorian-style choir backs Benson as he explores a story of loss. There’s a palpable sense of historical context present in The Awakening, a willingness to explore some of the more sinister and foreboding events of New Zealand’s colonial era.

Penultimate track ‘I Don’t Mind’ is a welcome change in pace, a jumpy, bright tune nestled amidst the darker thrust of other songs such as ‘Lingeress’, a sinister recounting of the death of Oggie the hedgehog and the inevitability of confronting family history.

The Awakening is a compelling, engaging and, at times, frustratingly intense artistic vision from a curiously unique songwriter. Benson’s originality is undeniable – I haven’t heard anything with such a precise, strange focus since Joanna Newsom’s Ys. However, the grand, unlikely scope of The Awakening takes work to enjoy, which some may find offputting. Still, despite Benson’s willingness to indulge himself on some exceedingly sappy topics (the death of a hedgehog?), you’ve got to admire his bravery.

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