Ben Bedford: Skilled Songwriter of Moving Tales

What We Lost
Waterbug 111
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What is it about the Midwest that causes songwriters and storytellers to crop up like late summer wheat? Illini Ben Bedford knows how to tell and retell great stories; he also knows that the bittersweet ones pack the biggest wallop. Or, as he puts it on “Cloudless,” my favorite track from his latest album, “A fallen angel sings the sweetest song.” The eponymous title track of What We Lost is the album’s central theme, but Bedford gives us far more than a melancholy collection of regret songs. In his subtle narratives, loss inspires search, and it yields things we never expected to find. On “Fallen,” it’s two riverboat men who drift into forbidden love; on “Empty Sky”–said to be partly autobiographical–it’s a latter-day Adam and Eve who find plenty of happiness after their metaphorical expulsion from Eden.

The reedy-voiced Bedford also pays tribute to past mentors. The poet Vachel Lindsay is the subject of “Vachel,” which is part dirge, part tribute, and part life lesson wrapped in the deliberate pacing and stripped down instrumentation of early Leonard Cohen. “Fire in His Bones,” which honors delta blues artist Charlie Patton (c. 1887-1934), is incongruously (but touchingly) rendered in acoustic folk style. Bedford is capable of country blues, though, as he showcases on “John the Baptist,” a song that sounds like something Greg Brown needs to add to his repertoire. In true Bedford style, John the Baptist’s message is ambiguous; he’s an inspiration, but he’s a fanatic akin to a TV evangelist. He may have even been crazy but–as Bedford sings–“a madman’s truth is still the truth.” The problem is that “truth” sometimes lies buried (“Cahokia”), or lost in a maze of injustice (“The Ballad of Harlington Wood,” a post Pine Ridge shootout song). Bedford appropriately ends his crisp ten-track collection with “Guinevere is Sleeping.” What do we make of Guinevere? Check out the myriad legend cycles before you decide. Maybe she’s just the flaxen-haired innocence into whose eyes we all long to gaze.

There’s some excellent songwriting on this album. I suppose the music wears the “folk” label, but there are also very tasteful Nashville production values, and Bedford mixes styles enough to keep the music from wearing a groove into our expectations. I get the feeling we’ll be hearing a lot more of this man’s songs.--Rob Weir

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