Who the hell is this guy? Why didn't anyone tell me about Benji Hughes? I keep up with contemporary sounds as best I can, trade musical tips with fellow obsessives, read the music rags, but I totally missed this oddball character from North Carolina who looks like the offspring of some unholy union between a long lost beer hippie and Sasquatch. Benji is one scary looking dude, but just when you think he'll ride his Harley through your flowerbed to kill the family dog, he turns into a heartsick troubadour who brings a tear to your eye. Benji writes the hell out of a song. He maps the human heart and not like some dopey singer-songwriter--this guy has soul.
I first heard about Benji this week in the Believer Magazine Music Issue, something that comes out ever year about this time, and a great article by Joe Hagen. Esquire, StarNews Online, and Encore, "Your Alternative Voice in Wilmington, NC," have also been sources for this piece, if you're curious about that sort of thing. Track down more info if you can. Some day he may be a common household name, but I just hope he gets one billionth the attention your brand name pop stars enjoy every day.
One of the best Benji Hughes' songs I've heard came out in 2003, in which Hughes sings about his old man in the joint.
It’s been a long time since you dropped me a line
I just had a birthday and Mom’s doing fine
The last time I heard you were still doing time
I heard about the sentence, never got the details of the crime
“Benji captures heartache much in the same way Hank Williams did back in his day," said Fred Champion, local musician and the owner of CD Alley, in Wilmington, NC (where tickets were on sale for Benji's shows at the East Coast Opera House, July 24 and 25). "He expresses in a song his thoughts and feelings on just what it means to be human: to love, to have heartache, to pine for someone, and about regular everyday life things like annoying neighbors or the experience of going to see a favorite band with some friends.”
Chuck Klosterman wrote a great article about Benji in Esquire back in March. "A Love Extreme is twenty-five songs of pure, enthusiastic songwriting from a man who clearly does not care what I think about his work. It's an ambitious, solipsistic project...But he's amazingly good at fitting every musical idea into whatever worldview is best suited to hold it. There's something effortless about his ability. It often seems as if Hughes can listen to any rival artist, immediately deduce what element defines the work, and then synthesize the vibe without seeming derivative. It's almost like A Love Extreme is a project: At various fleeting moments, he sings a little like Julian Casablancas, Joe Pernice, Leonard Cohen, Jarvis Cocker, Rivers Cuomo, Chet Baker, Mark Oliver Everett, and Mark Sandman."
Listen to his song about a road trip to see the Flaming Lips, called, appropriately enough, "I Went with Some Friends to See The Flaming Lips":
It was raining just a little but we didn’t mind
We had some drinks in the bar at the Haywood Park
Sent Mark and Jason on a beer run, ’cause it was getting dark
Then we checked into our rooms and started eating mushrooms
Jessica and Elle dropped by...
The music changes, shifts, and whoa, the drugs kick in.
Standing in a line we realized Mark had taken too much...
taken way too much MDMA...
He elucidates his world in stunning detail, and the music beautifully reinforces the mood. He'd probably yell obscenities if he heard this, but he's really a short story writer. His stories wouldn't be out of place in a collection of great contemporary writers working in the short form, George Saunders, say, or Deborah Eisenberg--writers who chronicle this strange modern world in all its glorious and strange detail.
"You Stood Me Up" is about a fight Benji had with a date. He brings in some soulful sounds and telling details to paint a picture of a small town misunderstanding that is bleak and absolutely real:
You had a date with me
On April 17th
I showed up at the Dairy Queen
where we were 'sposed to meet
I got there at 4:53
We were 'sposed to meet at 5
I had a Butterfinger Blizzard and some fries
According to Hagen in the Believer, Benji grew up in a crazy family with a strict Jehovah's Witness mother and a "hard-fisted drunk man" for a father, but he finally squeezed out of there. He played gigs in Charlotte and became something of a legend among local teenagers. This hillbilly beardo would show up and blow everyone away with his songs, then he'd smile and pop a beer. Hughes recorded some, too, and was roundly ignored by everyone. He co-wrote one of the songs from "The Dewey Cox Story" called "Let's Duet," a Johnny Cash/June Carter parody that has more double entendres than anything I can remember.
Benji Hughes came out with another record, "A Love Extreme," a glancing reference to the Coltrane spiritual classic. NYTimes music critic Jon Pareles loved it, and a few more folks, but it didn't really take off. Too bad. Not enough people read George Saunders, either. Still, it's a great album and worth your time, especially if you're just hanging around the Dairy Queen doing nothing.
Benji Hughes is not for everyone, and he doesn't want to be. If you're looking for standard pop confection look elsewhere. His voice can be mournful at times, kind of in the Beck ballpark, but he can dazzle you if you love true stories and real music.
The committee, they asked me to be the one to pick the band to play the prom
I said I wanted Frankenstein
They said that Frankenstein was not a band
Could you get Dracula?
Whatever you do, don't get the mummy
Don't get the mummy, when the mummy gets drunk he unravels...