Trace Mountains - Lost in the Country Music Album Reviews

On his solo breakthrough, the former LVL UP singer comes to terms with hard times by fully embracing the indie rock he loves.

What if the worries that keep you awake at night—fear of commitment, awareness of mortality, the inevitability of loss—could, instead, motivate you during the day? That is the gist of Trace Mountains’ Lost in the Country, a brisk indie rock record that bluntly addresses our deepest concerns and transmutes them into 10 winning anthems about persevering. In the worldview of Dave Benton, the Trace Mountains singer-songwriter who gathered a studio band to shape these songs, the cure is sometimes as simple as a long walk in the woods or a solitary cry in a foreign rock club. Or maybe it’s recognizing, as he does here more than once, that funneling your sadness into a tune just to make it through another day is perfectly acceptable. Lost in the Country responds to novel modern afflictions—the inadequacy that stems from witnessing everyone else’s glamour on social media, or the generational unease of a forsaken future—with Benton’s own survival guide, as comforting for its candor as it is accessible for its instant hooks.

Benton is an acolyte of big-guitar indie rock, particularly records that counter the self-doubt and systemic confusion of early adulthood with the bliss of getting loud in a room with your pals. His sacred texts start somewhere around Dinosaur Jr.’s 1987 landmark You’re Living All Over Me, include Built to Spill’s 1994 opus There’s Nothing Wrong With Love, and run up to the War on Drugs’ 2014 breakthrough Lost in the Dream (cannily namechecked by this album’s very title). His devotion has been clear for nearly a decade, first on the hulking albums he made with the promising but departed LVL UP, and on his own as Trace Mountains. His lo-fi debut supplied pure Bright Eyes and Sebadoh pastiche. When he kicked on the amps for 2018’s A Partner to Lean On as LVL UP wound down, he seemed adrift, sad and searching for his own sound.

Musically and emotionally, Lost in the Country is a decisive step forward. Those familiar references still abound—the title track might have fit on a turn-of-the-millennium Barsuk compilation, wedged somewhere between Death Cab and John Vanderslice, while the assured solo that ends “Rock & Roll” seems salvaged from A Deeper Understanding’s scrap heap. Benton name-checks that War on Drugs album on the title track, too, reinforcing his devotion to the romantic sweep of epic rock’n’roll, recast for the budgetary constraints of someone who recently quit his bigger band. There’s a newfound poise to these songs, an effortlessness in both conception and delivery that suggests Benton’s music can mirror his heroes while capturing his own experiences, too. Even when he gilds “Cooper’s Dream” with singing saw and glockenspiel or “I Am Leaving You” with blaring surges of bright organ lines, he turns his old loves into your new sing-alongs.

That brightness lifts Benton through the darkest parts of these songs. On “Me & May” he considers the implications of a breakup, pondering the parallel universe where he’s still happy and satisfied. Benton acknowledges the regret of choosing one timeline instead of another, but incandescent harmonies and spring-loaded drums guide him to the realization that he did the best he could with what he knew—all any of us can do, he suggests, until we are “drifting into a dream.” Again contemplating the choices we’re forced to make during “Dog Country,” he reflects on leaving Brooklyn for the woods of the Hudson Valley, pondering what he might have lost or gained. Pedal steel and a bucolic shuffle comfort him like hands on his shoulders, tempering FOMO’s bittersweet sting.

Lost in the Country’s sanguine mood and full embrace of its indie-rock predecessors run the risk of making Benton sound overly hopeful or naïve, the ostrich plunging its head beneath the surface to ignore the relentless bad news. But Benton is not above or apart from any of it. Especially near the album’s end, he reveals just how low he’s been. “Fallin’ Rain” opens with Benton at his most despondent, his tone furrowed over storm clouds of dark piano chords. And during “Absurdity,” he routes his voice through a tremolo pedal until it shakes like a dead leaf in a windstorm. “We are all on our own/There is no kindness/There is only violence—and smartphones,” he sings with a tremor that recalls Phil Elverum, tenderly rattling off a litany of existential laments.

But Benton doesn’t wallow in these pits of self-pity. Instead, he uses them as opportunities to change his circumstances and outlook, to climb out and look at the world around him and tell us about the process. As he marvels at an infinite hillside during “Fallin’ Rain,” he gets lost in something bigger than himself, something that will outlast “this hopeless heartache.” An acoustic guitar and bright electronics sparkle like prisms in the sun, echoing his epiphany. Even then, Benton’s voice remains as fragile as the feelings of inadequacy and guilt he’s fighting. That vulnerability testifies to our daily battles with our deepest insecurities, even after those fleeting moments when it feels like we’ve won.

And as it enters its second half, “Absurdity” steadily rises above its misery and torpor, a languid guitar solo leading to a verse that’s as life-affirming as indie rock gets. The most involved song in Benton’s catalog, it moves seamlessly through four distinct sections, like low-stakes prog-rock, to illustrate his lifting mood. It’s a testament to his broader musical and narrative ambitions, perhaps a suggestion of how far he can push his elemental indie rock lineage.

Above a suddenly funky beat that suggests summer days spent listening to jam bands, Benton relays a breathless story about hiking among the evergreen trees on a canyon rim. He’s stunned by the sight and feels free, at least until his phone buzzes in his pocket, drawing him back into a world of “true absurdity.” But he remembers now that he’s happy to be here at all, blinking in the daylight. “I guess this means that I can be a part of the ever-unfolding daydream,” he sings, his voice betraying a wry smile. Sometimes, there’s no escaping the sense that we’re living in shit, he seems to say. But at least it means we’re alive, always with something left to fix.

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About Wanni Arachchige Udara Madusanka Perera

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Trace Mountains - Lost in the Country Music Album Reviews Trace Mountains - Lost in the Country Music Album Reviews Reviewed by Wanni Arachchige Udara Madusanka Perera on Tuesday, April 21, 2020 Rating:

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