Local Albums: March 2010 – Ben Schmidt is a guy who writes songs and plays guitar, which in Iowa City, means he has to work pretty hard to stand out from the crowd. Schmidt’s singing is precisely pitched and without ornament. His songwriting has a pleasant, relaxed accessibility. His guitar playing is accomplished, but Schmidt’s taste doesn’t run to flashy displays. He’s the perfect guest for Iowa Radio’s “Live At The Java House”–he doesn’t curse or yell or turn anything up too loud. This is pretty faint praise, the sort musicians hate to be damned with, but Schmidt keeps his awesomeness stealthed. He stands out not for any gimmicks or outlandish gestures, but rather for the subtlety of his writing and his unforced, natural performances.
The title track “Silt” spins along in a relaxed minor-tinged lope, but each line is of epic length, and the lyric spins out a complex extended metaphor: “At the end of the day we are silt and sediment, a dirty line to remind us where we’ve been.” Along the way there’s an allusion to Huckleberry Finn, wistfulness for “a time before the flood,” and veiled reflections on regret and mortality. It gains power from being rooted in the actuality of living by a river.
“Neglect” returns to the river for it’s opening simile: “Old Neglect jumped up like a catfish fighting for the right to lay below the water.” For being a paean to laziness it’s a pretty finely worked lyric. The finger-picked guitar and brushed drums are a comfortable backdrop to a lyric whose extravagant specificity (“all we’ve got is basil leaves and sweet tomato mermaids kiss the beach of all our seas”) belies Schmidt’s relaxed, smooth delivery.
The songs on “Silt” are all like that–Schmidt lulls you with his considerable facility for comfortable folk-tinged pop, but there’s always more going on than you might first apprehend. It’s a lot easier to write something fancy or complicated than to write something simple and true, and Schmidt does the latter as well as I’ve heard it done in Iowa City.