Album Review: Ben McKenzie & His Broken Bones – Stand Down Son
Guest Review from C.F. Benner of Trust To Rust
Time has always had an awkward way of allowing old friends to become older acquaintances. In the interest of transparency, I’ve known Ben McKenzie for years. We went to the same university, worked on two records together for his previous band The Dupes and hung out in the local music scene for the better part of the last decade. I hadn’t spoken to McKenzie in ages and so I made the conscience decision not to download his new EP. I didn’t want to open up this new music through some disconnected link floating around in empty space. As an old school release guy, I wanted to listen to these new tunes while holding the artwork in my hands.
I knew Stand Down Son was going to be a departure from McKenzie’s previous work but I was surprised to discover that this new record had more in common with The Killers and recent Pearl Jam than it did with other notable indie acts. Produced by Canadian boardman Mike Borkosky (Low Level Flight, Ill Scarlet), the record paces back and forth with an organic nature, mixing genuine emotion and classic storytelling in front of a clear subdued backdrop. Borkosky is one of Canada’s best kept production secrets and his talent for recording vocals and arranging acoustic pallets allows McKenize and his competent backing band to fall right into his production wheelhouse.
The refreshing take on the broken down band sound is quite impressive. Tracks throughout the EP benefit from the soothing organs humming in the background while a cut like “1994” pushes down on the pedal without alienating the softer songs that follow it. The folky opening of “Which Way” builds to an impressive acoustic pulse replete with clanging church bells that can’t help but remind you of “Disarm” by The Smashing Pumpkins. Even the slightly sappy opening of “Home” transforms into, dare I say, the best McCartney-esque pop track I’ve heard in a while. I’m aware that those are hefty names to be throwing around, but the secret of Stand Down Son is that, although it’s predominantly an acoustic collection, its DNA is grafted from a rock backbone instead of the pretentious bloat that plagues other acts.
McKenzie himself has always had an uncanny ability to write quality road cruisin’ tunes and Stand Down Son is no exception. The difference here is that this record is saturated with late night cool downs rather than the punk energy of his previous songwriting efforts. I can’t tell you how honest McKenzie sounds here because, ultimately, that’ll be up for you to decide but, the beauty of this record is that he jams it out by allowing each song to naturally tell its own story. There’s an optimism here that pulls these songs back from falling headfirst into bittersweet territory. And while most of the album focuses on years gone by and love gone wrong, McKenzie spends his time telling you about what he’s learned from his past rather than wallowing in it. In fairness, it’s easier to carry this type of musical conviction over the course of an EP as opposed to a full length record, but McKenzie and Co. are wise to keep it short and sweet. It’s a sign of seasoned talent and it’s something that’s especially difficult to harness on a debut recording making Stand Down Son an impressive release.
After I finished writing this, I got resident Broken Bone guitarist Drew Harwood to text me McKenzie’s new number because sometimes keeping in touch has its benefits. In this case, it brought me some really great music. And, like any good story, great music is something I’ve always felt compelled to pass on and share. I’ll trust you’ll do the same.
You can check out Ben McKenzie & His Broken Bones this Saturday along with Good for Grapes, Zerbin, and Pat Maloney at Van Gogh’s Ear. Check out the event for more details.