Bencoolen’s “When You Look Back” has one message: Feel the burn, savour the burn, beat the burn.
There is an unknown sort of quality to the appellation, “soul-rock,” whether underemployed or unexplored.
Sure dabblesome garagemen and trifling multigenrists have touched upon the foundations of rock to infuse a fabricated sense of soul, a plastic, clear and refined and far removed from the well. The end of seventies sax the birth of a Bowie-style remix of funk and R&B rendered into British blue-eyed soul, waxen-faced and flaxen-haired or a Hall and Oates revamped Philly special, a club tour of the cradle of liberty.
The mid- and end-aughties witnessed the Black Keys and White Stripes rekindled some interest, mayhap a dangerous thing to play with fire when indulging in black gold and its vagaries, its awkward interchangeable place between gospel, funk, rhythm and blues or as an umbrella term for all. Danger Mouse too, architect of the neo-soul sound yet distracted by nu-disco baubles, hasn’t made a proper soul record since the untimely demise of Gnarls Barkley.
So ask someone what exactly entails the combination of soul and rock, and its difficult to point to the archetypal sonic, the key record that defines how standard soul by standard rock should sound. As a genre, it remains wide and open to the many musical epochs that have passed it by, allowing all these sly mixes and understated cocktail records to slip in and stick on a taste pallet corner, but still mask the raw flavour and never quite claim the whole lingo.
Stream: “When You Look Back” – Bencoolen
Enter Bencoolen with a bourbon whiskey on the rocks and a track to match it: “When You Look Back.” The tension between smoothness and roughness starts on high with the instrumentation and lyrics — an alternating affair between guitars and horns, friends, and an ex-lover:
Now you know the feeling
It’s a burning sort of healing
It’s okay, it’s alright
When you look back now
The wham-bam-thank-you-ma’am immediacy of the track adds a do-or-die dynamic of rolling the dice on a relationship—there’s both a flow and a speed, real-time strategy vested in the furs and furrows of luck—it doesn’t always work out and the game can go so fast that twenty-four hours past becomes an eternity ago and the future is naught but a blink never existing but in the moment. For Bencoolen, life is a decision made in the moment. Guitarist Teddy Scott says as much:
“‘When You Look Back’ is the story of two childhood best friends. The first verse sets that scene. The main character is dumped, and the other takes him out to lift his spirits. The “burning sort of healing” implies the first whiskey they grab at the bar.”
That whiskey burn becomes the recurring theme of the piece—a nostalgic and current reminder of living. A sour taste made sweet as it fades away, the ears begin to acclimate to the story of Bencoolen’s heartbreak. And swell on guitars, Bencoolen begin to bend like brass at each instrumental break. One could swear the horns were just here, Jack Bentsen’s alto saxophone hides somewhere in those headphones, riding along the riffwork. It’s just that good and subtle, beguiling listeners to hear something that might or might not actually be there at the same time that the song begins to look for hope somewhere else outside of the bottle. Listeners too, feel less inclined to punch and headbang the air and instead dance for more, lyrics sing:
Let’s find a better mark
She’s dancing in the dark
Now the lights changing
You can make it out again
And here is where the soul comes in: taking heart, clawing out of a hole, crawling to get back-up again, the headrush of finally rising, if suddenly to the new reality. The real conceit being that such aches and pains never foreshadow the end but highlight the living and the living who support it. The lush production strikes a tone akin to eighties big sound, a lack of grit in favour of a smoother taste, but still rife with a proverbial burn and a Guitar Hero-worthy solo that sticks to the entire tongue. The cut becomes a Black Keys yacht-rock baby. The finger-tapping cycle only adds to unleashed emotions of making it through a temporary rough patch to a sweeter and fuller future. Scott paints a picture of the light-headed thrill of music and friends as salvation:
“The second verse is that same friend coaching the main character through finding someone new. The song is intended to capture the importance of that lifelong friendship, that no matter what happened in a past relationship, or even the next one, they still fight to pick each other up.The song is intentionally loose, dirty, distorted. This captures a dive bar’s vibe sonically, but remains dancy and driving to underscore the undeniable thrill of getting yourself back out there.”
The cut might seems hopelessly naive or unrealistic and it all seems smallfry stuff, in truth, that this is a song about relationships but that is the soul, the prosperous gospel of resolve—betting it all on the will to power through through the relative darkness. And at just over three minutes, “When You Look Back” powers itself to the end. Perhaps the mountain was just a molehill magnified by the glass. Maybe the taste was larger than the ingredients. Perchance the music was drunk away for a prize at the bottom. But sometimes it is these pocket pockmarks instead of the ominous crevasses upon which we stumble.
The most we can hope for is to pick ourselves up with friends who know.
Stream: “When You Look Back” – Bencoolen
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? © Ari Strauss