Ben Salter – The Cat (self-released)
By Victoria Birch
On any given Saturday night there’ll be a thrust of flesh. High skirted, wobbly heeled. Hard chested, testosterone made. Ben Salter refers to Brisbane’s The Valley in ‘West End Girls’, but you’ll have a version somewhere nearby. It’s awash with fag-ends, bloody faces, spilt beer, dancing and crying. Good times and vomit. It’s the kind of place where people like Ben press their noses up against the window and wonder why all this cheap excess and easy gratification doesn’t make them feel at all excited – just excluded.
‘West End Girls’ epitomises Salter’s The Cat. This is the sound of someone trying hard to blend in … and failing. The title track doesn’t want folk to point and stare. Its spindly fretwork is pleasing enough, as are the thick, rubbery bass notes that chase their own tail. But then the whole thing goes a bit Tourette’s when a sax solo spews forth around the two-minute mark. Fuck me, I didn’t see that coming. It’s a proper solo too. Goes on for a fair bit and sounds like the ones everyone got a bit embarrassed about in the 80s. It’s not exactly inappropriate; more a colourful tic that sends a rocket up the arse of a song that would prefer to be the wallpaper rather than the elephant in the room.
Just to be clear, Ben isn’t pushing boundaries or envelopes or anything else that warrants silly statements to be made like “most exciting release of 2011”. He’s a singer-songwriter – a description which, despite its immensely broad implications, seems to have been co-opted to describe a certain type of artist. The kind that plays guitar, probably with acoustic sensibilities and who’s unlikely to thump the red stuff too hard through your veins.
The Cat is different though: peculiar enough to stoke more than a passing interest. It’s not the oddball instruments. (The press notes tell me a hurdy gurdy is involved. Well done. I wouldn’t know one of those if it hurdied and gurdied all over me.) Or the eminently likeable music. (Likeable! Now there’s a word to stymie the urge to find an internet connection and download button.) Nor is it Ben’s distinctly native inflection (as nice as it is to hear someone who doesn’t consider being Australian a failure).
The Cat deserves a home because it struggles to conform. It’s the appeal of the outsider. The sense that for all his neat phrasing and melodic arrangements Ben’s default position is one of awkwardness. ‘West End Girls’ is too long. ‘The German Tourist’ doesn’t have any words. ‘The Coward’ is absolutely desperate to please, but is beset by an overly enthusiastic organ and notes that buzz and hiss like a mild personality disorder.
These are compliments mind, not complaints. They are how Ben articulates what it’s like to hang out on the periphery, straddling the line between the accepted and the shunned.
To anyone who thinks The Cat is this year’s most exciting release: calm down. It isn’t. But while you’re in the mood to dish out meaningless awards, let me give it 2011’s “Best record for when you’re uncomfortably disconnected from the world (but not quite in the full throes of alienation and despair)”.