Marco Benevento is an incredible pianist and an excellent songwriter, and he’s found a unique niche as a musician within the experimental rock, jazz and jam band worlds. But on Benevento’s new record, The Story Of Fred Short, he’s exploring something new: singing.
Technically, he started singing on his previous solo record, 2014’s Swift, but on The Story of Fred Short we get to hear Benevento grow more confident with this new instrument, and find nuanced ways to use it.
The new album sounds more like pop music than anything he’s released. Even on Swift, the music was still kind of synthy and jazzy, and his vocals were often buried. But the new record is incredibly infectious, with indie-rock influences and Benevento taking on actual hooks as a singer. It’s the kind of territory a new band would start out with, as opposed to, say, where a long-standing experimental artist would land on for his sixth solo record.
Album opener “In The Afternoon Tomorrow” is a catchy, feel-good tune that will inspire some sunny afternoon drives on the coast with the windows rolled down. Single “Dropkick,” while not quite as good, is another sing-along retro dance-rock tune that will be sure to get at least a handful of repeat listens.
Still, those familiar with Benevento’s career might be struggling with this new direction. His pre-solo work was pretty out there, in groups like Benevento/Russo, Garage A Trois, Joe Russo’s Almost Dead, and Bustle in Your Hedgerow. Even his early solo work, which is primarily instrumental (with occasional guest vocals) straddles a line between bands like indie-jazzers Tortoise and funky art-rockers Talking Heads.
His live shows in the past have relied heavily on extended improvised jams. Between Swift and The Story Of Fred Short, he’s now touring with a much more diverse live set, mixing up improvised indie-jams with short pop tunes. The new record doesn’t convey the full scope of the pianist’s true range.
The album title is a reference to his recording studio, Fred Short. Benevento records in his own studio, and releases music on his own label the Royal Potato Family. So perhaps he’s proving his willingness to go his own direction. Who would have expected a purely pop record from him even three or four years ago?
The first half of the new record is loaded with his poppier tunes, and the second half is a concept piece about a fictitious character named Fred Short. Those songs are sonically linked, and have a darker, and, dare I say, more experimental quality to them than the front half. Oddly enough, they don’t work as well as the pop tunes at the front of the record.
In an interview Benevento did with Jambase, he described the concept of Fred Short, which is just a made-up story about a guy. It seems to lack depth or even much thought—writing a half-concept album, even linking those songs, appears to be just another experiment. Like all of the various styles he’s played with in the past, like taking up singing, like dabbling more explicitly in pop music—it’s all an experiment. Even when it’s not as out there as he can get—and even when it doesn’t completely work—it’s all coming from that same adventurous spirit.
INFO: 8 p.m. on Friday, April 1, at Moe’s Alley. 1535 Commercial Way, Santa Cruz. $14 advance, $18 door. 479-1854.