A little back-story: A couple of years ago I was involved in the margins with a small label that wanted to be able to offer their digital download versions of LPs they released – digitized FROM the LP itself. Through CIMS (Coalition of Independent Music Stores) came an independent download competitor for iTunes that was a better overall fiscal deal for the musicians. Called “Think Indie” – it specialized in indie labels and their musicians (now they’re involved more on the distribution and store-promotion side of the business). This was a gig that was brought together by my brother-from-another-mother, Mr. Eric Levin of AIMS (Alliance of Independent Media Stores) and Criminal Records and Record Store Dayinfamy. I’ve got a good analog setup and the ability to digitize at high resolution, and can edit down to any other resolution – including MP3. In Think Indie’s parlance, since this was a digitized vinyl rip, these were called MP 33.3 (har har har!).
The label, Karate Body, is a small-but-intense joint in Louisville, KY with a couple of handfuls of artists of the type that really define the authenticity of indie music, and indie culture. The first LP they sent was a seriously cool record of duets between Will Oldham (Bonnie “Prince” Billie) and Cheyenne Mize called “Among The Gold” – a collection of popular tunes from the late 19th to early 20th centuries. Logging a reasonable success with this one, we went on to create more MP 33.3′s from Rachel Grimes, Ume, and Phantom Family Halo. My memory gets a little foggy after that, but I do recall the Think Indie downloading site all-of-a-sudden not being there anymore, and I had gotten sidetracked with other projects and distractions that I sort of drifted away and lost track of what the guys at Karate Body were doing. Shame on me!
Flash forward to earlier this year. A friend of mine invited me over his house to hang, eat, drink, and listen to records. He related to me about how he and his wife had been to a small show where they saw this artist, a cellist, who was playing a bar or pub or somesuch manner of groghaus. While at the gig he picked up an LP that the artist was selling there, which he showed to me, and then he cued up the record. Wow … this was pretty nice stuff! Enough to stop us from talking and just sit back and listen to both sides with rapt attention.
Flash forward to last night, when I was once again invited over for food, festivities, and several hours of vinyliciousness coursing through his stereo system. Unexpectedly … he hands me a record – as a gift, and it is the very Ben Sollee record that he played for me the last time. This time I look at the cover more closely and notice – Ben Sollee is one of Karate Body’s artists! All those good memories flashing back to the time when I was making MP 33.3 vinyl rips and listening to some truly wonderful indie musicians on a label that is doing things I wish I were doing, better than I probably could do them, and with far more class than I think I could muster – even if I were forced through finishing school.
Apparently Ben Sollee was (and perhaps still is) known for being unknown, having been named by NPR as one of the “Top Ten Great Unkown Artists” of the year, 2008. Later, “All Things Considered” (another NPR program) called this record, Learning To Bend, “an inspired collection of acoustic, folk and jazz-flavored songs, filled with hope and the earnest belief that the world is good.” I think that’s a pretty good jumping-off point as far as describing his music on this record: acoustic, jazz, folk – throw in old-time and R&B to round it out. Singer-songwriter, story-teller, political, emotional, and supremely gifted.
Without doing a track-rundown (not really my style) I’d rather give you a snapshot, some samples, and have you make up your own mind as to whether or not Sollee will blow your skirt up. Style aside, this record portrays a young man with multiple gifts: a talented and creative musician and songwriter with an oddly wise and humble awareness of the world, with an unexpected abundance of generosity that pours out of the grooves like wine. Good, easy-drinking wine that leaves you better-than-happy.
The album was recorded really well, sounds like you’re at a live performance and Ben is in the room with you. I can’t stress enough how so many of these little labels are producing GREAT sounding records – evidence that these folks really care about their music, and about the people who are buying and listening to it.