Little Thoughts: Three Records with Ben Whitted

Little Thoughts is a brand-new monthly guest post series where music fans and writers cover three albums, new or old, that they think deserve to be heard. The series itself is named after a Bloc Party song. This month features Ben Whitted, a recently-graduated high school senior who is involved in a band called Iota Orator. We met, however, at a poetry slam in which we were both involved, and I was struck by how easily Ben seemed to spin language to create these vivid images. I had unconsciously high expectations when I asked if he’d write a Little Thoughts post, and Ben certainly did not disappoint. 

My name is Ben Whitted, and music has always had a special place in my heart, in the backbone of my family, and in our history. I grew up on my Mom’s music tastes, which supplied my adolescent nightmares with soundtracks of Nickelback, Black Horse and the Cherry Tree, and Let Go by Frou Frou (I really did have nightmares about those songs). As I grew up, I mostly drank up the dregs of my older brother’s discoveries as he pioneered his teenage journey into the depths of treacherously angsty waters. I finally tripped and fell out of my stolen cocoon in my Junior year of high school, when I immediately began loading up with every flavor of music I could stuff into my ears.

Now, I think a critically large portion of the reason why I love the following artists and albums and songs so much is because, for the life of me, I just can’t ever seem to explain them, or why I love them, adequately. All I know about these songs and artists are beautiful amalgams of brief–very brief–bouts of research, supplemented by imagination; hopes and dreams of my own design that I’ve selfishly projected over top of the artists’ sounds and faces. I don’t personally think that’s too unreasonable, as it’s pretty much why anyone likes anything, right? We like to cherry pick realities that agree with us, make hopeless lovers and dreamers of ourselves, or make us feel like we look good or look like we feel good. These realities we defend with our pride, which, of course, is everything to us.

Sorry. Let’s go explain some things.

Shugo Tokumaru – Night Piece (2004)

This is Shugo’s debut album and the one I’ve probably entwined the most of myself with. First of all, Shugo is a multi-instrumentalist. By multi-instrumentalist, I mean not only strings, percussion, and keys, but also toys, trinkets, bells, whistles, slide flutes, accordions, xylophones, recorders, melodicas, trumpets, oral percussion, and multitudes more of things I wish I knew the names of. His live performances at moments can take on the visage of a number of adults, one on guitar and vocals, and the rest simply having at it with a plethora of toys like they’re young again. Second of all, he creates every aspect of his own music, including the lyrics, music, arrangements, recording and mixing. I’m trying to conceal my giddiness.

Night Piece humbly offers a gorgeous balance between minimalism and complexity, the right times for one to preside over the other, and how incredible of an experience one hiding behind the other or the two hand in hand can create. Shugo’s dextrous mastery over the guitar will be one of, if not THE only commonly recognizable instrument you will be able to pull out of the dreamy winding river of nostalgic background ambience, rudimentary and homemade percussions, and Shugo’s own humble yet gorgeous tenor flavored lullaby of a voice.

This album feels like a beautiful dream brought on by an impermeable slumber after years of arduous homesickness and loneliness. This album feels like an evening spent floating down the ethereal abyss of the warm summer river behind your childhood home, serenaded by cicadas and chaperoned by constellations of swirling fireflies. This album feels like being taken by the hand and guided on a tour of the chambers of the heart of someone in love. This album feels like a hug. This album feels like home. Heck, there’s a teddy bear sitting right there on the album cover. If all of this can’t make you smile at least a little, what will?

Again, a healthy amount of my love for this album and artist is the mysterious blanks of how much I frankly don’t know about them, filled in by my own loves, experiences and sentiments. I don’t know how Shugo Tokumaru writes music so eloquently, but I thought I read somewhere once that his songwriting process takes place locked inside of a dark room with his dark thoughts, and his youthful, bubbly music was his strategy of survival. I don’t understand his language, but I thought I saw somewhere that his lyrics come out of a dream journal that he keeps by his bedside, which made the songs (and the artist) yet more dreamy to me than they already were. For example, I don’t know what the words in the song “Linne” mean, but I like to believe that it’s a love song, and no one can convince me otherwise.

All in all, the light Shugo Tokumaru made to save himself from his dark room became my replacement bulb whenever the old one flickered threateningly on the bumpy road through adolescence.

Standouts: “Such a Color,” “Lantern on the Water,” “Sleet”

Lemon Demon – Spirit Phone (2016)

Get this: Shugo Tokumaru was introduced to me via a music video that Neil Cicierega–of Lemon Demon–made for one of Shugo’s songs. Neil Cicierega felt like a second older brother to me, while already feeling strangely similar enough to the first. Already an idol in music taste, a tall gangly goof, a disgusting meme peddler (check “Neilcic” on Soundcloud), a masterful storyteller, an aspiring videographer like I once was (Neil earned a spotlight for his song “The Ultimate Showdown of Ultimate Destiny on Newgrounds and his youtube series Harry Potter Puppet Pals), and an omnipresent satirist. It felt like he, my brother and myself were quite similarly awkward, terrified and struggling individuals going through the same experiences and frustrations, but on a fractured and delayed timeline.

I use this strange, borderline TMI analogy to attempt to demonstrate precisely why I was so impressed by this album. Having followed the process of Neil’s productions and their evolution in complexity and quality, I found myself rooting for him and this zenith of musical prowess he had presented, he having started from the bottom and risen to incredible heights. Astoundingly, Spirit Phone contains an hour and 43 minutes of 27 songs, 13 of which are bonus tracks.

Neil’s voice is not perfect, and throughout his musical anthology it sometimes reveals the goofy and awkward man behind the curtain. I love that about his music. To me it is real, it shows his journey and the challenges he takes on, and it is satisfying to hear him come alive and cast aside all fear of self expression through something he is evidently incredibly passionate about. The incomparable strength he possesses as a songwriter and a lyricist more than make up for whatever vocal lack one might dream up. His untamable compositions tear viciously down electric Hotline Miami-esque beats and reveal something new and fresh around each turn.

Neil is one of my favorite lyricists ever. Never has he produced a love song that doesn’t gracefully curl around some clever, unique twist (“Reaganomics,” “No Eyed Girl,” “Sweet Bod,” “Goosebumps,” “Amnesia Was Her Name”). Nearly every song beckons the listener through an entrancing maze of hints, themes and teases that unfailingly promise the most satisfying (or deliberately and deliciously cliffhanging) resolutions, either gradually formulated and realized within the listener’s mind throughout the song or with the clever final delivery of the last missing piece at the end of the puzzle. Neil’s stories, allegories and messages have ranged from the telling of chilling ghost stories of many kinds (“Cabinet Man,” “When He Died”) to parables reflecting on the poisonous labors wrought by the crushing modern American work ethic (“I Earn My Life,” “Angry People”) to satirical advertisement pitches (“Redesign Your Logo”), even to a spiteful jab at irritable parents (“As Your Father I Expressly Forbid It”).

Beneath the shrouds of imperfection and prejudice lies a diamond molded by modern life and shining forth with the bioluminescent energy of a slightly twisted mind with something to say.

Standouts: “Touch-Tone Telephone,” “When He Died,” “Gravitron”

Them Crooked Vultures – Them Crooked Vultures (2009)

Them Crooked Vultures is a too-good-to-be-true supergroup introduced to me by my brother soon after it came out. I never truly understood exactly how magnificent this occurrence was until relatively recently, as I spent my youth mistakenly thinking Them Crooked Vultures and Queens of the Stone Age were the same group because of Josh Homme’s voice riddling them both. He, Dave Grohl, and John Paul Jones, however, synergized to rock my world–and the world’s world–with this beautiful barfight of an album.

These woe-is-me vs. the world vs. you vs. myself anthems of bad*ssery induce thoughts and feelings that sound like “Yeah, I’m cool enough to be in a gang”, or “Yeah, I’m tough enough to get in a fight and not cry”, or “Yeah I suck, but I know I suck and you try to pretend you don’t suck, so that makes me better than you”. The music puts a filter in front of weaknesses like shyness, insecurity, physical weakness, vengeful anger, FOMO, vulnerability, guilt, envy, lust, etc., and reflects them back as a dark, mysterious, shadowy figure that is humanity’s cool, tough, dark side that will bite your ear off in a fistfight.

Joshua Homme has a beautiful, self-aware way of hand-feeding one’s ego while simultaneously ridiculing them for their hedonistic egocentricity. It is one of the most literal examples of “guilty pleasure” I can think of. His relationship with the id of humanity reminds me of the relationship between Deadpool and death herself.

While this was potentially the kind of music that sometimes led those poor shy, awkward and misunderstood souls woefully awry in thinking they could ever possibly get away with wearing a leather jacket to school, it also, in healthy moderation, helped those souls acquaint themselves with their own demons and even befriend or conquer them.

Kings of producing “that moment in a song that makes you want to break through a window with your skull” like in “No One Loves Me & Neither Do I,” Them Crooked Vultures probably couldn’t care less if you nerds gave them a listen, but I care a lot and highly recommend them.

Standouts: “Elephants,” “Reptiles,” “Warsaw or the First Breath You Take After You Give Up”

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