REVIEWS 1998 – 2002
IN THE RED 
DELUSIONS OF ADEQUECY
The brilliance of Kind of Like Spitting has always been Ben Barnettâ€™s unique voice and songwriting acumen. Over the span of at least six full-lengths, assorted EPs, compilations, and even cassette releases, Barnett has spun tales of love and longing, sometimes with raw emotions stripped bare, sometimes with a wry sense of humor thatâ€™s surprisingly refreshing. Perhaps one of the most poignant and tragically overlooked indie singer/songwriter, Barnett is equal parts Bob Nanna, Isaac Brock, and Conor Oberst, while a strong voice all his own.
In the Red is an intriguing release with an intriguing history. Recorded in five days with Death Cabâ€™s Chris Walla at the helm, Barnett and his label at the time butted heads, and the album rusted away on the shelves. It was reborn with producer Dave Achenbach, and the songs were reworked with a new intensity and raw eagerness. The result is apparent in the albumâ€™s impassioned energy and sly dichotomies.
The light, bouncy acoustic guitar and flute accompaniment of the opening â€œAubergineâ€ bring to mind Sufjan Stevens or like-minded popsters, and it would be easy to miss Barnettâ€™s tongue-in-cheek tale of an artist trying to get recognized. The light track is a jarring contrast to the brash electric guitars of â€œWe Fell All Over You,â€ which takes a more serious rock approach. Stay with it when things are shifted another 180 degrees for the folky â€œWorker Bee #7438-fb7904,â€ which is really acoustic guitar and vocals, letting Barnettâ€™s lyrics shine. These songs demonstrate the strength of Barnett, who is one of those rare artists who can make either variety equally stunning and evocative and put such diverse tracks back-to-back-to-back and still provide a cohesive album.
From there, the album continues to evolve. â€œSpinâ€ is raw and quick, while still just vocals and acoustic guitar, stripped down to the most bare elements and possessing the albumâ€™s most evident bite. The title track is head-bobbing electric rock, and â€œSherrif Ochsâ€ is lovely folk, with flute making another appearance alongside gorgeous guitar. â€œBubble Congressâ€ is the tightest rock song here, with excellent layered instrumentation and an electronic snarl of guitars that brings to mind Braid at times, while â€œAll Hail!â€ is actually punky a la The Thermals. Harmonica on â€œSongs for Annieâ€™s Harmonicaâ€ gives the song a bit of a Bob Dylan folk feel, while â€œGrapesâ€ is quiet and starkly personal, much more Nick Drake than Dylan. â€œThe luckiest asshole Iâ€™ve ever met is playing music on my bed again,â€ Barnett sings along with female vocals on the pretty â€œLine and Sinker.â€ And for those who enjoy Barnettâ€™s stripped-down, singer/songwriter style of old, â€œFinishingâ€ carries that along, before he demonstrates his country stylings on the closing â€œPassing Through.â€
If youâ€™ve heard one KoLS release, you sure havenâ€™t heard them all. Barnett has changed dramatically over the years – sometimes on the same album â€“ but he never loses what makes his music so striking: his raw urgency and intensity. Even his rather warbling voice conveys that brilliantly, but the true brilliance is in his songwriting. Few others can write such evocative songs in one style, let alone such contrasting styles. If this album is a bit jarring in its diversity, it can be forgiven in its cohesion and strength of songwriting.
THREE IMAGINARY GIRLS
By Chris Estey
The clarion call for the half melancholic-folk, half fiery noise-pop of Kind of Like Spitting’s In The Red was last summer’s mini-album LEARN, a tributary collection of protest folk singer Phil Ochs songs that Ben Barnett (who basically is Kind of Like Spitting) enthusiastically shared with his fanbase. It could have been a potentially hazardous introduction to Ben’s new direction, depending upon the re-created songcraft of his newfound muse and spiritual mentor. Would his batch of new original material going to wear Ochs’ misty madness so conspicuously on its sleeve?
Fortunately, In The Red is at least halfway completely unexpected. Barnett’s stormy relationship songs like “We Fell All Over You,” contain psyche-shaking accusations shot between spiderweb basslines, and the churning, chord-twisting title track sounds like visceral self-laceration, as confusing and brutal as a night on the town gone terribly, horribly wrong. But only a caustic crank would say that the to-be-predicted Ochs-influenced material like the dually vicious and elegiac “Aubergine” (“I live in a town that reminds me what I owe her â€” feels like a punch every time I come home â€” running out of excuses for every explosion”) or the graceful Zen anarchist-gospel of the classic folkie closer, “Passing Through,” are in any way merely derivative.
After flailing around a bit creatively and professionally the past few years, Barnett has dug deep into his inspiration and hooked up with Hush Records, creating a challenging album with both the painfully clear, morbid wit of his storytelling hero and the fuzzed out ferocious basement crunge-rock of the embittered bed-sit set. You may consider In The Red’s approach schizophrenic the first few plays through, but eventually it nearly has the same Gnostic divine and depraved flavor of Neil Young’s awesome Rust Never Sleeps, a platter of sweet acoustic shattered psyche lamentations cycling around a set of bone-breaking musical rages. As Young too is a known huge fan of the late Ochs, this isn’t a surprising direction for Barnett to go in, but it is certainly remarkable that he raised his own bar so high and created music to meet it.
In The Red is an enchanting album, one that has been seemingly ignored by most of the music press in the two-plus months since its release. Perhaps that makes its belated holy kiss even more heartfelt.
“Ben Barnett’s sharp tongue is painfully honest, and don’t we know it.”
[POST-FOLK] “I live in a town where the weeklies are just trash,” sings Kind of Like Spitting’s Ben Barnett during the first 30 seconds of In the Red, the Portland singer-songwriter’s eighth album. And though the prolific Hush Records artist stabs me where it hurts, that’s exactly what I love about his music: its painful honesty.
But Barnett’s sound has changed in other ways, his heart-wrenching acoustic ballads largely missing from In the Red, giving way to a bit more of the rock. However, In the Red doesn’t skimp on the singer/songwriter’s know-you-all-too-well lyrics and ferocious acoustic strumming.
Though Barnett does emulate obvious influences like Bob Dylan (see “Songs for Annie’s Harmonica”), In the Red contains some more contemporary sonic rip-offs. The completely awesome “We Fell All Over You” instantly brings to mind Why?’s Yoni Wolf, while the aptly titled “All Hail” is the closest Barnett comes to mimicking another’s style, in this case local singer Hutch Harris of the Thermals. Being compared to Why? and the Thermals is far from a dis, but I expect each Kind of Like Spitting record to be 100 percent Barnett, so it’s a little off-putting.
A handful of tunes on In the Red are, in fact, 100 percent KOLS: “Finishing,” the oh-so-Barnettly titled “Worker Bee #7438-F87904″ and, yes, the WW-slamming opener, “Aubergine.” But the crowning jewel of In the Redâ€”and the epitome of a Kind of Like Spitting songâ€”is the super-brief, biting and burning “Per Se Wha?!” Whether it’s Barnett’s rough, breaking voice or piercing delivery, when he yells with all his vocal might over sparse, singular, power-strums, “Are you happy with what you’ve got?”, it feels like 10 years of therapy wrapped into a beautifully tight minute-and-a-half package. AMY MCCULLOUGH.
Kind of Like Spitting’s eighth album In the Red opens with “Aubergine”, a rolling folk song that offers an incisive look into a hometown and its effects on a person. The song’s acute descriptions of life and its confusing side (“I’m still learning what my heart is for”), and its gently sublime melody, are instantly arresting. But don’t expect track 2 to sound the same, or for track 3 to sound like track 2, and so on. On In the Red, singer/songwriter Ben Barnett integrates his troubadour/folk singer style (following up on his recent Learn EP of Phil Ochs covers) with louder, electric guitar-heavy college-radio-style rock (like an angrier version of contemporaries like Death Cab for Cutie). He bounces from one style to the other, and often integrates the two. There’s an abrasive side to the music at times, a tuneful side at others, and always the music captures Barnett’s personality. It’s an epic album, with storytelling and contemplation and the sort of personal songs that seem cut right from the singer’s heart. Barnett’s tone is often that of a seeker or dissector, exploring what his life is about and why he does what he does. As he sings at one point, “I will keep singing / I will keep fishing for some words in this water all around me”. – dave heaton
When Ben Barnett sings “I’m no victim” on the opening track of his latest Kind of Like Spitting album, In the Red, it doesn’t feel like he really believes it. That’s probably due to the fact that a large part of this album deals with Barnett’s victimization at the hands of women, friends, record labels, whole towns, and even the government. Ben’s gift for melancholy, self-pitying lyrics is, after all, one of his trademarks. He’s been playing emo-influenced, angst-ridden tunes on acoustic guitars since well before Connor Oberst and Bright Eyes and, in my opinion, still does it better. And in that sense he is a victimâ€”of circumstance, at least, as the kind of success that Bright Eyes and other similar bands currently enjoy has so far proven elusive for Barnett.
But after a fairly unfocused album on Barsuk Records and an EP of Phil Ochs covers, In the Red represents more than a return to form for Kind of Like Spitting, its a real step forward. The angst is still there, but songs like “Aubergine,” “Song for Annie’s Harmonica,” “Grapes,” and the Leonard Cohen cover “Passing Through” exhibit a kind of restraint and perspective often missing from the band’s back catalog of tortured ballads. The music on this disc alternates between a full band playing angry, distorted rock songs and Ben simply playing guitar and singing. Though the transition between the two styles is sometimes jarringâ€”perhaps the only real problem with this recordâ€”and the acoustic songs are more immediately accessible, even rockers like “Bubble Congress” are filled with memorable melodies and catchy guitar leads. The slow songs are as well-written and moving as ever, but some new elements such as flute and harmonica have been added to the mix, and the subject matter veers toward the political on a couple of occasions. All of these are welcome additions.
Ben Barnett has always been an immensely talented singer and songwriter, and on In the Red he proves that he can, for the most part, tone down the anger and self-pity enough to produce a compelling album with perhaps a wider scope and resonance than much of his previous work. Not that there’s anything wrong with feeling bad for oneself every now and again, but here’s to hoping the reception to In the Red will keep Ben and Kind of Like Spitting feeling good enough to continue in this ever-so-slightly more positive direction.
LEARN: THE SONGS OF PHIL OCHS
As a folk songwriter he wasn’t quite Bob Dylan, and as an avant-pop experimentalist he wasn’t quite Brian Wilson– so Phil Ochs unjustly remains on the sidelines of history. So when Kind of Like Spitting not only revives his songs but studies and evangelizes them– per the liner notes, KOLS has performed these in concert with explanations of who Ochs was and why he still matters– they deserve praise, especially when they pull it off this well.
Ochs wrote lyrics that were topical to his times, from the early ’60s through his personal decline (as well as the decline of the anti-war movement) in the early ’70s. But in KOLS’ hands, they never sound dated. Protest folk songs are a thing of the past but at their best, Ochs’ lyrics remain inspired and witty, like the chorus from “Draft Dodger Rag”: “I’ve got a dislocated disc and a racked up back/ I’m allergic to flowers and bugs/ And when the bombshell hits, I get epileptic fits/And I’m addicted to a thousand drugs.” “That’s What I Want To Hear” calls for the downtrodden to come together and form a union, and it’s still relevant– it’s just missing a line about rising health care costs. The anti-war anthem “I Ain’t Marchin’ Anymore” recalls the young men sent to die throughout our history, and it would be easy enough to update it for the present– but thankfully, KOLS leave it alone.
Ben Barnett and David Jerkovich share duties on vocals and acoustic guitar, and they do the songs justice with love, enthusiasm, and not too much reverence. Urgent and precise, they find the right tone for this style of brisk folk music, and they only fall short on the vocals: they miss Ochs’ dry delivery– for example, on “Outside of a Small Circle of Friends”, which comes out with too-obvious scorn– and also, both singers sound like they’ve got head colds.
It’s a common question why, no matter how bad things get, we can’t cough up a great protest singer today. But the answer is right here in Ochs’ songs: again and again, he criticizes the listener for non-particiation– for supporting the war but dodging the draft, for skipping out on the riots at the ’68 convention, for not stopping a rape or helping the poor. Ochs turned his angriest words on the liberals who talked big and did nothing.
But he had no idea where we’d be in the ’00s, when staying politically active means keeping your Kerry-Edwards sticker on your bumper a year after the election. Protest music today reeks of nonparticipation and even impotence, from the abstract anxiety that fills Radiohead’s ’00s albums, to Conor Oberst’s “When the President Talks to God”– a puerile trainwreck of a song, but also a timely one, because all of the cussing and television-kicking mirrors how Blue Staters act after hearing about Bush’s latest adventures on “All Things Considered”. Today we lack the literacy, the specificity and the argument of a Phil Ochs song because we don’t participate, and we have nothing at stake.
So my solution is simple: bring back the draft. Sen. John McCain, who wants us to win in Iraq, has probably been thinking about this all along as he calls for higher troop levels and more engagement from the public; and while Rep. John Murtha got the spotlight for saying we should pull out, he has also said that he would love to bring back the draft, drum up the army we need and go back and win this thing– but he knows it’ll never happen. Well, I say that it can. If the Bushies step it up a notch and demand sacrifice, in lives and treasure, from the American people, we will step it up in kind and get serious about complaining and protesting. We won’t wag a finger at the TV; we’ll march in the streets. And if we don’t give it everything we’ve got, here’s hoping the next Phil Ochs shows up to call “bullshit” on us all.
-Chris Dahlen, January 3, 2006
THREE IMAGINARY GIRLS
By Chris Estey
The artistic schism comes down to this: Ben Barnett of Kind of Like Spitting is the Phil Ochs to Conor Oberst’s Bob Dylan. Will this make sense to anyone who either didn’t grow up in the 60’s or hasn’t at least dabbled enough in the history of the relationship between those artists during that period?
A brief history for the (understandably) unaware: Dylan was the folk prophet who initially smeared his voice with the essence of protest and poetry from American history; Ochs was part of his milieu, along with Joan Baez, of new American transcendentalists doing to folk music in NYC what the beatniks had been doing to literature for a few years (reinvention of both genre styles and their own identities). Dylan’s persona was as a timeless trickster, who would even sacrifice his initial musical form (Guthrie-style hobo tunes and lamentations) on the altar of apocalyptic rock to prove his Abraham-Isaac point about popular music. Note Bright Eyes’ recent ability to be topical and musically diverse, simultaneously. (His acerbic relational viewpoint in songs also harkens back to the Dylan of “It Ain’t Me, Babe,” as well.)
Ochs was also a Jewish boy with a Jones for the twisted American dream, full of passion for traditional folk hero imagery, and he had a fiercely satirical wit. He possessed a gift for “musical journalism” which he used as the template for most of the songs in the early part of his career (which Barnett focuses on here, pretty much). Most people perceived him, probably from our vantage point now, as sort of a Lenny Bruce meets Randy Newman: The Nasty Rabbi as an Americana folksinger, just as self-mythologizing as Dylan, but (and this is the important thing) not “cool.”
Ochs addressed injustice as poetically as his mentor and rival Dylan had, but he did so with big buckets of passion, as in the perfect example of protest overkill, “Here’s To The State Of Mississippi,” where he loses his nut and basically wants to blow up the entire state. (As opposed to “The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll,” Dylan’s carefully crafted and paced complaint against the way poor people’s lives cheapened by capitalism.) Romantically, he might have treated his wives and women as cruelly as Dylan had, but he didn’t brag about it in his songs. Instead he demonized the abusive male he loathed in himself and projected it on to the kind of government that wanted to cause a needless, self-destructive war in Vietnam. It was psychological deflection that made for a unique form of song-craft: Sort of like how emo boys put on their feedback-slopped marching boots to let the world know they’ve been used as doormats through every relationship they ever had.
Speaking of emo boys, that’s where Kind of Like Spitting comes in, after ten years of existence, and over half a dozen “moody doomed love” affair albums (thanks, EC). Ben and David have done their homework on Ochs’ mordant early work, where he doodled out his clinical depression in non-album tracks like “I’m Tired” and “You Can’t Get Stoned Enough.” Both are delightful downers from the hand of a brilliant narcissist, as grey and absorbing as anything Kurt Cobain ever wrote.
From there, Kind of Like Spitting turns to Ochs’ more flagrantly topical material, reminding the listener that things haven’t changed much since the mid-60s, when a great deal of the American populace didn’t think the government gave a shit what they really felt about anything. The seven-plus-a-fragment selections on LEARN may be spare but are choice: “Draft Dodger Drag” will always be funny, with its list of ridiculous complaints keeping someone out of military service (“I’m only eighteen, I got a ruptured spleen, and I always carry a purse”); the brawling optimism of “That’s What I Want To Hear,” urging people to self-empower, kick ass and not just complain about oppression or need in their lives; the almost horrifying “Outside Of A Small Circle of Friends,” the lyrical examples of which convict any listener not actively trying to make life around them better (a woman getting dragged to bushes and stabbed as people just stay in their apartments, not getting involved); and the quintessential rebel rouser, “I Ain’t Marchin’ Anymore.” (The guitar playing on this is as perfect as Ochs’ original — man, that must have taken some practice!) None of these seem out of date, even if the haunting ambiance of where the record was recorded (Gene Autry Theatre in Los Angeles, on a humble two-track) paints the recordings as starkly as Ochs’ originals.
It sounds as if Kind of Like Spitting had fun making this tribute, and they’ve selected some songs that should never be forgotten and could really stand another listen now. (The hidden track is nice, too.) I would love to hear a sequel sometime, maybe of later material, when Ochs had followed Dylan’s lead and gone from newsprint-inspiration to more cinematically-large epics. (I’d love to hear Ben and Dave cover the thirteen minute fall-of-civilization “When in Rome” off Tape From California, for example, where every cruel desire inherent in humanity is explored with “emocore” level passionate overkill. Boys?)
Covers–and cover/tribute albums in particular–are a difficult beast to assess, especially when the intentions of the presenters are (usually) quite sincere. One could make the case that the most successful execution of a cover song is when the performer transforms the song, finding some new twist or emphasis which makes the song “their own.” On Learn: The Songs of Phil Ochs, Kind of Like Spitting approach the material with tremendous reverence, to the point of utilizing the same hard-pan stereo placement of the early Ochs albums. The presentation of the nine songs that comprise Learn (at 30 minutes, is it a long EP or a short full-length?) is often so spot-on to Ochs’ own style of delivery that it almost begs the question of why they would bother when one could just go with the genuine article and listen to a Phil Ochs record instead. The key word here is almost, because something almost imperceptible is happening in this revisiting of the work of the man Dylan snidely referred to as a “journalist.” Though not expressly political in their own work, for this release Kind of Like Spitting have tapped into the urgency of Ochs’ struggles (political, personal) and made the songs resonate with new meaning(s) for a younger, modern audience who may have never heard Ochs’ music. I understand the impulse that once you’ve encountered someone as brilliant (and tragic) as Phil Ochs, you have no choice but to let the world know about this neglected treasure, almost like a rite of passage for the musically uninitiated (and I was the same way upon “discovering” Phil Ochs back in the 1980s). It is tempting to suggest that if Kind of Like Spitting want to turn a new generation on to the songs of a man who fought all the right battles and sang about them in a most immediate and personally engaging way, then perhaps they should tell people to go pick up some Phil Ochs records. With Learn, and I mean this in a most positive way, I believe that is exactly what they are doing. -EDWARD BURCH
ONE HUNDRED DOLLAR ROOM [REISSUE; 2006]
As Kind of Like Spitting, Ben Barnett has been hugely influential since he appeared on the scene back in 2000. Despite many other bands mentioning him as shaping their sound, some of his best records have been hard to find, including the recently reissued One Hundred Dollar Room â€” regarded by many fans as the best recording that Barnett made during his most prolific period (four albums in one year). Initially, it is hard to hear what all the fuss is about because it sounds so very derivative of other contemporaries. Like an unfinished demo tape, it seems tantalisingly close to greatness. So close in fact that it all begins to make sense eventually. Like early Guided By Voices or Lou Barlow at his most inspired, there seems to be real thought behind every decision on One Hundred Dollar Room. Slowly, the genius of Kind of Like Spitting emerges and in other hands, this could all end up being clichÃ©d, but Barnett just seems to know how to arrange songs in a satisfying way. He packs a lot into short periods of time, both lyrically and musically, and doesnâ€™t really put a wrong foot here. Even a cover of Billy Braggâ€™s â€œLittle Time Bombâ€ stripped bare to a quivering voice and guitar works. It seems only fitting that one of his finest moments is made available again, as Barnett is apparently returning to his old prolific ways. Even if he never reaches these heights again, One Hundred Dollar Room will always be his classic album.
I experienced my first taste of Ben Barnett on April 25, 2003. He was playing guitar for the Thermals, which had formed a year earlier and on that night was opening for Yeah Yeah Yeahs in Seattle. I didn’t know who Barnett was at the time, but I lucidly recall standing right in front of the venue’s stage and watching in awe as he shredded the hell out of a guitar faster than anyone I’d seen before.
It wasn’t until watching him perform as Kind of Like Spitting a year later that I recognized his face and energy and eventually put two and two together. I was later told that he was paid $200 for the night’s set and that he’d been sleeping on his ex-girlfriend’s couch for the time being, which seemed a reasonable explanation for his spontaneous, DIY style. Always one to avoid an artist best described as “the epitome of emo,” I still hadn’t bothered to listen to a Kind of Like Spitting record but was now lured in; Barnett’s live persona recalled the intensity of Billy Bragg far more than any broken-hearted songwriter from the Northwest. And so my ideal image of him ensued.
What I hadn’t realized while getting to know Barnett’s music was that he’d recorded four albums in 2000 and would release three more over the next six years. One Hundred Dollar Room was one of those first four, and while its place in such an impressive collection is admirable, I glumly discovered that Kind of Like Spitting translates too well live to hold up on a recording.
It’s daring of Hush to re-release this “early” record only a month prior to Redder’s February 2006 release of The Thrill of the Hunt and two months after the In the Red EP, the latter of which actually contains some raw acoustic gems. One Hundred Dollar Room merely represents the Northwest’s bleak outlook, multiplies the Eeyore factor by adding guest vocalists like Corrina Repp, and addresses Barnett’s physical core with “Hey Mr. Heart, don’t you know/ without the right food to grow/ you won’t break the soil come summer” (“Scene”). There is a bit of an energy shift to the album’s advantage come the dissonant but poppy “Yes, You’re Busted,” which addresses the phoniness of scenesters who find solace in supposedly personal music. But save for this standout, One Hundred Dollar Room essentially acts as Barnett’s chance to weep a sheet of rain over his fans’ heads.
Still, watching Barnett live is like pretending Billy Bragg is more accessible than reality permits, and if there’s any part of this record to revisit, it’s Barnett’s cover of Bragg’s “Little Time Bomb” (from 1988’s Workers Playtime), the smartest way to end this album. Barnett may lack Bragg’s British charm or authentic punk spirit, but he’s got the same heart and voice of a working-class believer who could certainly let his sense of authority develop with time and experience, if only he’d let it. Ironically, his version is slower and more stripped down than the original, but Barnett’s got a grasp on the energy it takes to passionately deliver, and that’s what ultimately begins to redeem the entire record. Almost.
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