Don’t cry for Ben Sidran: his latest masterpiece is a counter-culture marvel
The first thing that comes to mind when playing Ben Sidran’s Don’t Cry For No Hipster is: Where’s the … uh … jazz? All this guy seems to be doing on the “Back Nine” — albeit quite cleverly — is talking, not really singing, about golf. “I traded in the five spot for a new kind of club, but I still maintain my swing.”
Clever all over the place.
He is an educated Ph.d hipster, the kind that used to evoke mystery and cool — not the pathetic poseurs trying hard to be different with “[J]azz and poetry, black threads and berets,” yet possessing none of the substance of its Prohibition origins (“a denizen of the night who arrived at the club with a flask in his back pocket”).
Or, as Sidran — published author of the recent “There Was A Fire: Jews, Music And The American Dream” and “A Life In The Music” memoir — wrote in his liner notes: “… the true hipster is a warrior of the first order, a master of the chiseled cool, an outlier of the interior world, a cynic perhaps but an optimistic one, and, at all times, such as when stepping into an empty elevator shaft or jumping out an open window, prepared to go up rather than down.”
Keep listening, it definitely goes up. Sidran’s voice — drenched in Tom Waits, Donald Fagen, and Michael Franks, (piano, Wurlitzer), the familiar, effortless Space Cowboy come-ons, and that cool hipster jargon used meaningfully without getting too deep all work together with a laid-bad but swinging jazz band to produce 14 hooglin’ songs of originality, humor, and sometimes, incredibly fragile poignancy as to practically invent his own genre.
This is Sidran’s 35th solo album. It’s perhaps the best capsule of what a true hipster is, and by default, what a true hipster is not. Not a note is out of place. Not a word is pushing the pretension meter. And the jazz is more than a mere style point. It’s crucial — yet laissez-faire (check out out “At Least We Got To the Race” and “Take A Little Hit”), hip.
The self-described early hipster had his drummer son Leo come onto the project and produce it. Then came the Brooklyn musicians to Bunker Studio in Williamsburg to play… cats like bassists Tim Luntzel, Orlando le Fleming, guitarist Will Bernard, percussionist Moses Patrou, tenor saxophonists John Ellis, Mark Shim.
“Brand New Music” is a hilarious take on double meaning and the catch. This is Steven Wright on Steely Dan type acid-jazz. Sidran takes a wry, dry look at people’s bragging rights, a new car, a new job, a new, hot chick. At first he seems complimentary of these, then casually observes the twist. “Say now how’s that new girl workin’ out for you? Man, she’s long and tall, she’s nasty too, got all the boys hooglin’ after you. Now you might not notice, but she’s their old lady too. But hey, with a girl like that, what could possibly go wrong? Brand new music, same old song.” Classic hipster done right.
Another classic hipster number is the fun, catchy word play of “Can We Talk.” Sidran takes two lines containing basically the same words but expressed in such a way as to evoke two different meanings. “I’m not sayin’,” hands off, then “I’m just sayin’” as if he already knows what’s going to happen but isn’t telling you. “Can we talk? Let’s talk.” It goes around over and over like this the entire time. Now that’s hipster.
The title track features the same too clever Ben Sidran lyrics (the writer in him just doesn’t quit), done in his best beat-scat style, tongue-in-cheek, yet strangely melancholy, romanticizing and admiring of the aging hipster who “saw the writing on the wall.” This is a theme that actually permeates the entire recording, for those paying attention. Again, a play between knowing the absurdity of life and enjoying it purely anyway, the ultimate existential puzzle.
There’s more than just the speak easy in “At Least We Got To The Race,” the most jazz-serious piece on this album, next to the instrumentals (“Reflections,” “Hooglin’”). There’s some serious vocal acrobatics, slow gliding, and in time with the swerve and Coke of the piano and sax.
“Dying Anyway” takes an almost sobering look at aging, through the hipster lens. “This sh*t ain’t killin’ me but I’m dyin’ anyway…” portrays a man who simply wants to be let alone to live his life, but seems predetermined to lead an army in his last days toward some sort of action, anathema to the hipster. The guitar leads a strain that purports to feel half-hearted but contains a strength and a wisdom underneath, drawn upon reluctantly. Lyrics and music fall together to intentionally reflect the state of being accidental.
A departure from the sardonic wit in the album is in the romantic instrumental, “Reflections.” It’s a flowing, sweet convergence of piano and horns, evoking days gone by juxtaposed impossibly against a foreign, senseless current. With each peeling back, the tranquil, idyllic notes reveal what’s true to the listener and the artist.
Not a lot of artists can amuse and surprise at the same time. Ben Sidran can. “Don’t Cry For No Hipster,” released on Nardis Music April 2, 2013, is a find. But don’t tell him that.