Album Review: Ben Driscoll — ‘Unseen Danger’

I don’t know if it’s a conscious influence, but the music and moody atmosphere of David Lynch’s Twin Peaks come immediately to mind listening to “Muleville,” the lead-off track on Ben Driscoll’s Unseen Danger. The tremolo guitar is an Angelo Badalamenti favorite, and the cooing backing vocals from Katherine Ruestow remind the listener of Lara Flynn Boyle and Sheryl Lee’s accompaniment on “James’ Song.”

Driscoll’s last record, Earthly Remains, wasn’t a paean to the power of positive thinking, but this album is bleaker and spookier. It’s gothic but not goth, unless you consider Leonard Cohen goth. The track “Business” invokes the myth of Sisyphus, but has a mordant humor: “Bound to be found headless if I don’t address this soon … both my enemies and allies turns out they were all spies feeding me refined lies, they never look in my eyes,”

On “End Time Blues,” Driscoll’s dark voice is set against a darker ensemble sound. Angela Barr’s violin, Bradford Highnam’s pedal steel guitar and Peter Balestrieri’s baritone saxophone pile up in layers of mournful wailing, anchored in Driscoll’s electric piano and Brooks Strause’s piano. This song was completed before the pandemic, and now sounds prophetic. “After a tumultuous year, and after all the blood and tears, I’m still not ready to submit or live in fear.”

“Wilting Flowers” is sweeter and more countrified, sounding almost optimistic. The Rolling Stones’ “Dead Flowers” comes to mind, but as battered and weary as the protagonist of the song sounds, he’s not in the basement “with a needle and a spoon.” If “End Times Blues” is apocalyptic in general, “Wilting Flowers” carries more personal feelings of time being short. “Deals never closed, untread streets and roads, love letters lost in the post … I only want more time…”

“Pesky Divers” complements the dread in other songs with a homespun menace: “Where you going with that sharpened screwdriver? Who you gonna meet with a tool like that?” The song is a list of unanswered questions, the most pointed being, “What if all the sinners die? What will the righteous do then?” Musically, it’s close to the Texas two step of Bob Wills, but where Wills is good-timey, Driscoll is decidedly bad-timey.

The depth of 2020 despair runs through “The Past”: “They may have been good times, but they’re over; ain’t living in that past no more.” The wavering synth lead adds a nervous tension, and Driscoll’s piano sounds like a parlor piano gone a bit sour because no one wanted the tuner inside the house. The literal self-isolation of the songs Driscoll recorded in lockdown underlines the loneliness that has always imbued his music.

Unseen Danger is a story of a man beset by the slings and arrows of an ordinary, sadly shabby sort. But the sound of the album undercuts the existential dread and desperate loss of the lyrics. Driscoll taught the cast of players, a who’s who of Eastern Iowa’s musicians, the skeleton of these songs, and they ran with it, making the miserable glorious. If Cedar Rapids has a terroir, Driscoll’s music has it.

This article was originally published in Little Village issue 288.

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