Release Date: Dec 3, 2013
Record label: Other Music Recording Company
Genre(s): Pop/Rock, Alternative/Indie Rock, Alternative Pop/Rock, Indie Pop, Alternative Singer/Songwriter, Indie Folk
On its surface, Jordan Lee’s debut proper as Mutual Benefit scans as breezy and beatific, with the intricate piano, incidental wind chimes and light strings forging the sensation of hazy summer days lounging in long grasses. Listen in to Lee’s chewed wisp of a voice, however, and a heartbreaking narrative bobs to the surface. Faced with a loved one sinking into a deep depression, he struggles with the fact that dumb love is all he has to save them: he can only ever comfort, not cure.
Just as the lineup of Jordan Lee's Mutual Benefit project is amorphous and ever-changing — sometimes appearing solo and other times as a collective with friends joining him on stage — so Love's Crushing Diamond is always in flux; it's a body of water with a million tiny river veins, constantly flowing. Musically and lyrically, Lee has crafted an album rife with hope and wild optimism for life and love and human nature in the face of today's commonplace complacency: "We weren't made to be this way/ we weren't made to be afraid," he sings on "Golden Wake" after the protagonist quits his job post waterside revelation. The lush layering of chimes, strings, and woodwinds, along with the steady homemade percussion, wash in and out like the tide alongside each track, stressing movement and the idea that, like "the river only knows to carry on" ("Strong Swimmer"), we must also keep on keeping on despite life's challenges.
Not to talk shop, but a person that reviews records for any decent stretch of time manages to be emailed a shitload of music. Listening to it all isn’t even a chore; it’s an impossibility. Still, you can imagine the curiosity that lingers from every fledgling songwriter that reads a Ryan Adams review and thinks “this guy likes him, he’ll probably like me, too.” Sometimes, the records even come to your home.
Love may be patient and kind, but it also demands much of the people it possesses. The abstraction is a fixture of pop songs old and new, but love is typically lauded or loathed in lyrics. It’s a thing of extremes, and rarely is the middle ground explored. Brooklyn (by way of Ohio, Boston, and Austin) multi-instrumentalist Jordan Lee expands on the fears, joys, and weight of love on the debut LP under his moniker Mutual Benefit, Love’s Crushing Diamond.
Mutual Benefit’s proper debut LP Love’s Crushing Diamond can be described in a number of simple ways: loving, patient, warmhearted, unfailingly hopeful. Pretty much the utmost qualities you’d want out of a human being, right? Those descriptors are certainly less trustworthy when applied to art, as they’re often considered the byproducts of complacency, or at least a warning sign. Whenever a band comes along that people tell you is “necessary," they’re probably ripping shit up, telling you what to think, espousing conflict against music and listeners that got a little too comfy.
"Gentle" and "reassuring" aren't necessarily the most exciting compliments to give an album, but Mutual Benefit's Jordan Lee turns those virtues into a remarkably engaging full-length debut. Inspired by the struggles some of his friends were enduring, on Love's Crushing Diamond Lee builds on the winsome, folky indie he began crafting with a series of EPs on Bandcamp and his own Kassette Klub label. The comparisons to early-2000s indie folk luminaries like Sufjan, Animal Collective, and Antlers still stand, and the mix of rustic sounds and wide-ranging atmospheres also recalls Yellow House-era Grizzly Bear or Mercury Rev circa Deserter's Songs, particularly on tracks like "That Light That's Blinding," where dappled banjos and strings mingle with sweet vocal harmonies that rise and fall like breathing.
Jordan Lee’s background - from pop-punk enthusiast to Radiohead fanboy, right up to a stint in an Austin, Texas recording studio - didn’t necessarily lead to a direct path. How he ended up taking the Elliott Smith / Sufjan Stevens route on his new album ‘Love’s Crushing Diamond’ is anyone’s guess, but there are plenty of clues laid out in this record (his first album ‘proper’, in capital letters, following a string of Bandcamp releases).It’s an album devoted to a journey; specifically that of Jordan’s big trip. It’s moving trains, sleepy afternoons in the backs of smoke-filled cars, endless days where everything’s uncertain, from tomorrow to the next twelve months.
Somewhere along the line, Sufjan Stevens decided to give up his banjo and embrace the keyboard, Devendra Banhart got weirder than his sweet spot of "good weird," and Bonnie "Prince" Billy started appearing in rap videos. Here to pick up the (mostly despised) flag of neo/indie/freak (whatever your descriptor) folk stands Jordan Lee, who records as Mutual Benefit. His debut full-length, Love's Crushing Diamond, is chock-full of direct, emotional songs that seem at first glance familiar and simple, which belies the deep beauty and tricky balancing act of emotional-without-being-cloying that Lee walks expertly.
In music writing, the descriptor “timeless” often refers to songs that have transcended genre and generations, folk and blues standards that are as politically and socially relevant now as they were at the moment of their creation. But “timeless” can also refer to songs whose quality is independent of the fact that their genre was popular or hip 10 years ago. Such is the case with singer/songwriter Jordan Lee’s Mutual Benefit and his terrific new album Love’s Crushing Diamond, an album whose contemporary notions of masculinity and baroque pop recall Sufjan Stevens and the Postal Service of the early Aughts.
Mutual Benefit is Jordan Lee, whom has been living a somewhat nomadic lifestyle, bouncing from Austin to Boston to St. Louis, touring consistently and working for his sister during his down time. Lee has released several singles and EPs on cassette as Mutual Benefit before arriving with Love’s Crushing Diamond, his most accomplished work yet and clearly a singular achievement.
The opening moments of Love's Crushing Diamond are awash in heartsick strings and wind-struck chimes; it sounds less like a band tuning up than a dust-strewn shack shaking itself awake. That fragile quality is preserved throughout the debut from Brooklyn multi-instrumentalist Jordan Lee, who has an alpine voice and a nature-lovin' heart. "Golden Wake" turns a walk outside into a story of triumphant self-resolve, and the Walden-indebted "Advanced Falconry" is a love song so bare and direct it doesn't matter that it's possibly about a bird.
Mutual Benefit's most fleshed-out recording has been gaining critical momentum for good reason: it's warm, gentle and atmospheric - very of the moment. Playing with the listener's expectations of the singer/songwriter tradition, Jordan Lee draws liberally from both indie folk and folktronica. The initial soundscapey clamour gives way to more rooted, introspective fare on Golden Wake, and the album improves as it goes on, with symphony violinist Jake Falby shining in counterpoint to warm electric guitar parts on Advanced Falconry, where you also hear the full power of Lee's pretty tenor and the band's organic rhythms.
Mutual Benefit is legion. It is one man, it is all of his friends, and it is everyone he’s ever met. It is a solo project. It is a collaborative effort. It is a band. It is a collective. However, as much or as little ownership as he might like to take, Love’s Crushing Diamond could not exist ….
MUTUAL BENEFIT LOVE’S CRUSHING DIAMOND You might have seen this album on some magazine’s year-end list of overlooked albums from 2013. And in the instance of “Love’s Crushing Diamond,” a spot on those lists is much deserved. After its digital release in October, the album garnered significant recognition in the indiesphere and was subsequently released by Other Music Recording Co.