Album review: New Bums – ‘Last Time I Saw Grace’: Ben and Donovan reveal an unexpected treat

ONE – and there are many more, but for now, this – one of the many reasons we at Backseat Mafia love the good folks at Drag City, is that they have a huge roster of brilliant artists who mix and collaborate and create anew; and that DC fosters and releases such new breeds and their tunes.

One such act is New Bums, the creative shore of Six Organs of Admittance’s prolific psych voyager Ben Chasny and Donovan Quinn, of erstwhile Jagjaguwar psych-folk mainstays Skygreen Leopards (if you missed ’em, they were lovely – check “Disciples Of California” for size).

The duo first ventured into the world of recorded sound for Drag City six? Nope, seven years ago now, their debut album Voices In A Rented Room containing such raggedy lovelies as “Black Bough” and “Your Girlfriend Might Be A Cop”. That august journal of record The New York Times described that record as “feeling like it’s falling apart,” which Ben and Donovan took entirely as a compliment.

A tour Stateside and in Europe followed; and then the curtain descended and New Bums returned to the silence whence they came. Hot damn. Good record, though.

But that curtain rippled and parted once more in early December, as a new song, “Billy God Damn” emerged from the mists, accompanied by one cryptic, pithy communique: “Back in slagtion … that duo nobody thought to ask for”. It was vivacious, freewheelin’, excellent fun; and now a second album is almost ‘pon us, the minimalist angularity of the first revisited in greyscale. And that, ladies and gentlemen, is why we’re gathered here today.

They’ve cleaned up their act just the teensiest bit, with a touch more concession on the production front; but they’ve still got this brilliantly wayward approach to a tune, knowing how to capture it fresh and not to be too angsty about some hairs being out of place, a collar untucked in the song. It is what is, and that is is good.

Lyrically, we’re still in a dark and surreal world, part Paul Delvaux, part Bukowski – there’s bodies tied to masts, and devastation after the empty bottle on the table pulls out a gun. It’s surreal, edgy, impressionistic, way cool.

Let’s just track back a little, learn just how these two fine fellows got the New Bums thang on.

Donovan says, maybe a little surreality colouring memories rendered hazy by the passage of time: “Always taught to mind my own business and not meddle in the affairs of others, I was resistant to find lodgings for Ben (a veritable stranger at the time) but was compelled to do so by my priest, Father McAfee.

“After securing an apartment near my own for the mysterious Chasny, I was shocked to find him not merely ungrateful but seemingly in complete ignorance of the fact that I had performed this favor for him. Chafing at such ingratitude, I chose to stew from a comfortable distance. My apprehension towards friendship seemed more than reciprocated.

“When invitations began to arrive to visit his home I was surprised but soon
discovered such mercurial shifts in mood were the norm for Ben. One day he was kicking me out of his house for an innocent comment about The Rolling Stones; next day he was buying me a drink, followed by threats of violence, then hugs, then insults; and ultimately an invitation to form a band.”

“We weren’t always friends,” corrobates Ben.

“The ‘band’ began in 2007 when I moved to the Mission in San Fransisco and somehow ended up two doors down from Donovan Quinn. [He] was a solo, brooding guy back then, not too far in disposition from an old dog, or a gopher with a sickness. The word that was often used to describe him at the time was ‘rascal’.”

“As such, him being my neighbor and me needing to mellow him out, there was only one thing for me to do: invite the rascal over to play music in my garage late at night and drink the rascal under the table to let him know who’s boss. Times are different now but that’s just how it was back then.

“After many nights of listening to The Faces, Cinderella, Beggar’s Banquet, and other likeminded bands, we started to cautiously introduce each other to our own music. That’s how New Bums was born.”

That’s it. From the irascible can grow an off-kilter lo-fi troubadour duo, with tunes they’ve polished up as much as they can be arsed, frankly; and yet it’s way enough to seduce you, my friend.

New Bums brush up on past classics: Ben Chasny, left, and Donovan Quinn

“Billy, God Damn” was that first rejuvenation of the New Bums project just as Christmas loomed, and you can have a dip in it below, as you may find pleasing to your needs. It’s a freewheelin’ slide blues with a confessional whisper of a vocal and intriguing lyrical alleys. That slight upping of the production values serves the song very well indeed, let’s the strum and the slide gleam. Billy doesn’t get off quite as lightly, it has to be said; “Billy, it’s a goddam shame / The strain on our bodies, the shame on our name,” Donovan whispers of our titular miscreant as the song paces the room languidly. Curious. But then New Bums completely are curious. Loving those haunting, glammy slides on the backing vocals. There’s a busked coda that’s satisfyingly rough ‘n’ ready.

“Obliteration Time”, follows, cheerily; it’s street-corner sussed, chords chopping out over a tale of a heartsore, weary break-up; “I was your pal, baby,” Donovan sings, Ben dropping a neat baroque-folk figure as Donovan’s falsetto drops away, and redoubles with a pretty electric lead line that’s got a little of the Mick Ronson about it. What seems to start out as a pretty if rough-assed campfire tune is actually a really deft slice of electric-led folk.

“Marlene Left California” is a sad country-folk charmer, one that Gene Clark might’ve absolutely run away with; a song of departure, voice and backing slide resonant and warm and wrapped up together with a long, lyrical look over the shoulder at old friends missed; the following “Onward To Devastation” is a brilliant nugget of blissed psych-chamber folk, the smell of incense filling the room. The falsetto backing vocals once more bring an unexpected, soaring and eerie breath to a tune that maybe demands a poncho and a hookah on some verdant terrace for full effect.

“Wild Dogs”, a cover of the Tommy Bolin tune from 1975, just before he was taken from us, stays out there in beautiful psych-country, erm, country; a stately chord progression with a cute, Sixties’ descending bass figure is joined by a mournful synth fill, as Ben laments with 3am regrets and another neat whisky pour out kinda … messily. It’s a helluva lot more grandiose and sad than either of the singles will have prepared you for. Sneaky devils, this pair. Just as it seems to break down in final resolve, some acid-dirtied guitar lets rip eat the blinding San Fran sun and we’re sated in a way we didn’t know New Bums would ever care to offer.

“Cover Band” laments the musician payin’ their dues on the circuit with the tiniest scent of Galaxie 500’s “Decomposing Trees” somewhere in its DNA. A singer is lost to the avant-garde, “after Nick told her / She played the tambourine too hard.” This is New Bums propping up some dressing room table in a one-horse town, grinding it out, the shit business of Crème Brûlée: “We start with ‘Back In Black’, we end with ‘Candle In The Wind'”. Existential questions and minor chord shimmer make this a shadowy lament for the down at heel.

“Tuned to Graffiti” was the second single, from not so many weeks ago, and we’ve included the video for you down after the words to save you seeking it out elsewhere in our pages or even – perish the thought – out beyond; because we like it, we like it a lot. Like the preceding “Cover Band”, it’s from the camp of New Bums we’re maybe better acquainted with; frayed cuffs, mussed-up hair and a lopsided grin you’re gonna fall for anyway. It’s vocally insouciant – check the delightful way Ben and Donovan’s vocals don’t quite hit the little slide on the melody in the middle eight, which is all the more lovely; it showcases Ben Chasny’s way with a pretty blur of melody as those guitars build and layer.

For “Street of Spies” we get the moments before and after, the studio crosstalk, and it’s an easy folksy strumalong with a stirring strings thing; Ben and Donovan once more deliciously just off each other’s marker in the vocals. “Who gives a fuck about clemency?” is one of the best biting opening lines in a good while.

“Hermitage Song” leans towards Ben’s crisp and mantric 12-string approach, rasping bottom E string and all; yeah, it’s the most Six Organs track here. One voice declaims in a cracked whisper, the other mirrors an octave up. Rather lovely and could’ve maybe stood shoulder to shoulder on Asleep On The Floodplain.

The gossamer-pretty instrumental fragment “So Long, Kus”, quick guitars and what sounds to be a squeezebox should be twice as long, just because it’s lush; the band noted “[it’s] a tribute to the late Dave Kusworth, [of The Jacobites and Dogs D’Amour] who just passed away. We’re both a big fan of his.” And in finality, “Follow Them Up The Slope” comes in on an early Byrds-type figure, before kicking back into a looser valediction of being led astray by person or persons unknown (but female), and that wound is still so raw. It’s a slow cart-ride home of a song, wearied, with gorgeous vocal harmonies and the killer line “Still clinging to the hope / That we did the right thing … today.” Sit comfortably, cos this track could cause you to fall hard.

The truth revealed, gutter press stylee; Ben and Donovan may play the irascible old grump card, but Last Time I Saw I Grace shows that actually they’re proper softies at heart. They’d probably even give your cat a tickle under the chin when you ain’t looking.

It’s also a record that reveals much more depth than the two single drops really hinted it contained; yeah sure, there’s cracking moments of that raggedy-assness, but that run of wider-screen psych-country near the beginning, “So Long Kus”, “Hermitage Song”, are deft and prettily arranged, less … excellently thrown down than you might expect. Not that we think they aren’t capable, given their pedigree; we just didn’t know that deep down, they cared about us like this. Weirdly and connotatively, there’s something of Gastr Del Sol about the way they communicate musically, if you ask me.

It probably isn’t the kind of album that throws you back against the wall at some party downtown for a ruby-red lipped snog; but it very much is the kind of album you end up on a spontaneous road trip with, or hanging with on a rainy Sunday, and realised you had deep feelings for all along.

Get it now, before that mate of yours in the irritatingly cool shirt rocks up on your doorstep with it under their arm, expecting you to be not clued up enough.

New Bums’ Last Time I Saw Grace is released by Drag City digitally and on vinyl today, March 19th; you can order yours direct from the band over at Bandcamp; from Drag City, Rough Trade, or your trusted local record emporium.

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