If Ben Cramer and his solo project Old Sea Brigade, originally founded in 2015 while living with his parents in his hometown of Atlanta, had not arrived with his celebrated single “Love Brought Weight”, and 2017 EP Cover My Own, there is no doubt he is established now. The January 2019 release of Ode to a Friend stands as his debut album. Later in 2017, after being signed by Nettwerk’s Terry McBride, Cramer retreated to producer Jeremy Griffith’s studio in Destin, Florida to begin recording Ode to a Friend. Tragically, one of Cramer’s closest friends committed suicide around that time, prompting Cramer to craft a song about the loss – the track “Ode to a Friend” was born, and the project had found its title.
The album commences with “Sinkhole”, which is indubitably among the album’s finest offerings, if not finest. Cramer hits hard with the line “and I was wrong about you, was wrong about you” – this record promises to be more or less, in some fashion or another, an intimate exposé. The song rather encapsulates the ambience Cramer employs to elicit the feelings of emptiness, or the quality of emptying that seems to be the main activity of the album. “Sinkhole swallowed gold, on your way back in”, Cramer wistfully sings in the rasping, breathy vocal character he maintains throughout the record; a voice that is becoming somewhat of a signature. The centrepiece of the track is a clean, shimmering guitar riff that is soon counterbalanced by the undercurrent of a bass drum beat and some piano chords, later climbing the scale to add to the sparkling, almost celestial sound of the song.
“Seen a Ghost” is very much echoing the first track in its haunting reminiscence with a hollowed-out sound and seminal lyrics like “kicking your mind back to someone you used to know, kicking your mind back to places I can’t go”. “You look like you’ve seen a ghost”, Cramer nonchalantly sings – hinting at an irony we as listeners may merely suspect, not being privy to. The song offers some real texture with some interesting arrangement decisions; for example, there is a plucked string synth effect that contributes some sonic depth to the general procession of the song, joining the workhorse acoustic guitar Cramer features with his utilitarian drums and airy synths.
“Feel You” is distinctively honest and simple. Driven away by some basic piano chords and a heartbeat-like bass line and patterned like a stripped-down and detuned blues song, Cramer simply states “feel you in the morning, feel you in the evening, feel you when I’m sleeping, feel you when I’m dreaming”. Around the two minute mark, he escalates the vocals in volume, register, and emotive quality. At the close of this expostulation, there is a meandering clean-toned guitar solo with tremendous reverb – Cramer absolutely nails the reverb effect through the whole album, but most notably, perhaps, here. This song will invariably draw comparisons to The War On Drugs’ work, specifically on Lost In The Dream (2014).
If not “Sinkhole”, “Resistance” might literally be the pièce de résistance of the record. “Resistance” pushes on with a heavily reverberated drum track and undulating synth section that is once atmospheric and then subliminal, together offering a pulsating progression that is accented masterfully with well-placed keys.
“Hope” leads off with a bit of southern twang in the guitar riff. It progresses into the body of the song with heavy reverb, giving the hollowed-out introspective vibe that the album embodies. Not only is the singer in “strawberry fields” with himself in his mind, but he feels the need to disclose to his lover his anxieties regarding loneliness and death and, essentially, his desire for peace and what that means for him.
The frothing chorus of “Stay Up” is not quite enough to lift the sometimes lyrically compelling but overall less-than-exemplary verse section. It is a little overwrought in terms of content, as the theme is rather dwelt upon in a manner unconducive to the effectiveness of the song au total. Cramer’s flair for ambiance and mood-manipulation is still present though, and almost as a white noise bit this track has some quality still.
In “Western Eyes” the picking riff and action thereof are reminiscent of Led Zeppelin’s ‘western song’, “Going To California” – a truly favourable comparison. There are actually rather lovely but unobtrusive female backing vocals in this song; in such moments Cramer subtly varies the sound and scope of a song in a delightful and unexpected way.
The eighth song on the album is “Straight Through the Sun”, and it has some bop to it – a real ‘toe-tapper’. Continuing with the theme of domesticity, using morning coffee and picking up roses to meaningfully discuss a soured relationship, Cramer croons “I don’t want to live without you, but I don’t want to drive straight through the sun”. There are some distorted guitar chords on this track that really add some rock sensibility, even while the song maintains its provincial charm.
“Want It Again” is pretty much par-for-the-course on this record, offering some continued folksy musings and descriptions on a relationship. There is a rather compelling use of a synth that sounds like the deep rolling of an ocean wave and gives way to another instance of very deliberately placed distorted guitar. Certainly this is a deep-cut on this record.
Part of Cramer’s homespun charm is his constant use of the domestic as an entry into a reflection or story of some heavy import – heavy import, at least to him. “Cigarette” is just such a track, built upon another picked away acoustic guitar riff and soft keys. Of the last song and title track, “Ode to a Friend”, the eerie yet promising onset of the song is surprisingly jarring for still being characteristically a soft song. As mentioned prior, the song was written about a close friend who so sadly passed, and the lyrics reflect the two-edged feelings of fondness and sadness at the recollection: “this is me thinking, I think all about you”. And yet, the song has an uplifting, eternal quality to it – with gusty synths and guitars, the tone of the song itself suggest that the feelings of fondness outweigh the pain.
The album is a sprawling soundscape of ambient qualities; on all tracks the guitars are clean and celestial, the keys are rich and charmingly detuned, analogue synths sweep over and under the tracks like ocean breezes and currents, and the minimalistic drum tracking is tight and heartbeat-like. Executed with artistic finesse, the album is a solid achievement for the southern boy with indie, folk, rock and genuinely alternative propensities. Ode to a Friend is a calculated exposé treating the listener to a dreamlike musical foray into the mind and moments of Ben Cramer, and executed as well as it is, not much beyond that.