We’ve been here before. That is, we’ve heard Ben Mason of the soon-to-be-departed Smallgoods rebuild other people’s songs as a cappella gems. But where 2009’s Acapulco Volume 1 – named for a priceless malapropism from his mother – tackled Aussie peers like the Crayon Fields, Dappled Cities, Ned Collette and Pikelet, its follow-up focuses on Portland, Oregon. Mason spent a month there last year “with new and old musical friends”, and this is the gushing postcard from his visit.
Gushing not just because of Mason’s fondness for Portland and these six songs, but because of the unfettered way in which every structural component is exhaled from his body without any instrumental support. The approach is liberating, not limiting, and it’s a thrill to hear him move so freely through the material’s dips and peaks. Building layer by layer and part by part, Mason gives himself over to songs that feel inherently moody, even before his naturally melancholy voice gets a hold of them.
On top of being a postcard, this is a love letter to harmonising. That’s no surprise to any Smallgoods fan, but this will be catnip to the kind of people who lose hours soaking up vocal-only Beach Boys mixes. Like the Futureheads’ newish a cappella album Rant, Acapulco Volume 2 doesn’t just rebuild entire songs with pure vocals, but recasts them with an eerie innocence and timelessness. Which, of course, is a perfect fit for the throwback AM-radio songwriting vibe Mason clearly cherishes – you can hear it in his selection of the Shins’ strongly ’70s-styled ‘Fall of 82’ (off their recent Port of Morrow) and Fruit Bats’ kindred ‘Too Weird’.
But he’s not just being anachronistic; he’s exposing each song’s fragile soul. Finely tuned lyrics come to the fore on Laura Gibson’s ‘Skin Warming Skin’, even as Mason uses his voice so well to establish a darker atmosphere in the background. His treatment of Sean Flinn’s ‘Patient Heart’ is at once flighty and weighty, depending on which vocal parts you concentrate on, and he nails the encapsulated dreaminess of ‘Time Machine Submarine’ by Shelley Short, who has toured Australia with Darren Hanlon and had her latest album released on his Flippin’ Yeah label here.
Closing with ‘Beach House’ by Arch Cape – the project of Rachel Blumberg from Mirah, Bright Eyes, M. Ward and more – Mason hits upon the project’s most apt lyrics: “This way we try to understand the way our bodies breathe and move.” Just as his Zombies project was a way to elevate his recording techniques, this is a rigorous study of the possibilities of vocals. Of how much we can do with what’s already inside us.
by Doug Wallen