Want a backstory? How’s this: Brooklyn native starts singing in dive bars with his brother a full decade before he can legally drink, drops out of high school, spends a year in Havana training with the Cuban national boxing team, then tours Europe – again with his brother – and their doom metal band, Dead Man’s Root, before it implodes and Ben de la Cour finds himself again stateside, this time armed with an acoustic guitar case full of songs he’s dubbed Americanoir.
Fast forward ten years and many more miles – from L.A. to New Orleans finally settling in Nashville – and ‘The High Cost of Living Strange.’ It opens with a meth-addicted family barely existing but loving every second of it while they’re “ridin’ the white devil into the wind” on ‘Dixie Crystals,’ and things don’t get much better for the next half hour.
Ben de la Cour lives up (or down) to his self-described Americanoir with his fourth album, recorded live in Greenland Studios in Nashville and produced by de la Cour and Joe Lekkas. Surrounded by mostly brushed snare drum, fiddle, accordion, and bass, de la Cour handles (mostly) acoustic guitar, mandolin, and Moog, creating a warm organic sound that would sound perfectly natural in either a rural dive bar the American deep south on a Saturday night or on a Sunday afternoon back porch.
The songs on ‘The High Cost of Living Strange’ paint a bleak picture of the American landscape and its inhabitants on the fringes. There’s the uncle who puts a bullet in his head in a ‘Company Town’ because the alternative to him is worse. Then there’s the hitchhiker who got into the wrong car on a cold, snowy night in the horrifying ‘Tupelo.’
The obvious comparisons to Townes Van Zandt have happened elsewhere among the cognoscenti, so there’s no need to focus on them here, except to point out that naming a song ‘Guy Clark’s Fiddle’ – as well-written as it may be – is a bit too on the nose. On the other hand, ‘Uncle Boudreaux Went to Texas’ is one of the album’s most powerful songs. In a truly touching narrative, it illustrates perfectly that home is indeed where the heart is. Whether Uncle Boudreaux ever went to Texas other than in his mind is not the point, it’s where he was most at peace.
The title cut is “a young man singing an old man’s blues,” and closes the album with a Tom Waits/Marc Ribot-type gutter crunch that warns, “the harder you lean on somethin’, the harder it lets you down.” While that may fit into the overall feeling of dread that winds its way through ‘The High Cost of Living Strange,’ Ben de la Cour’s way of crafting a story and delivering it with his sometimes menacing and teetering-on-the-edge-of-madness-yet-eerily-calm baritone makes it impossible to turn away, even at the album’s bleakest moments. An at-times difficult, yet captivating listen.
Dark, Southern Gothic themes weave through mostly gentle acoustic arrangements