Release Date: May 20, 2016
Record label: Mom + Pop Music
Genre(s): Pop/Rock, Alternative/Indie Rock
Mutual Benefit’s debut album proper Love’s Crushing Diamond was one of 2013’s very best. A short but gorgeous suite of seven exquisitely arranged baroque folk compositions, its peaceful, mellow mood belied an introspective lyrical theme, exploring the importance of being in control of one’s own emotional well-being in order to adequately support others. The band is essentially one man – American multi-instrumentalist Jordan Lee – who lives a peripatetic existence drifting between different U.S.
Jordan Lee's second proper album as Mutual Benefit begins in the same way that his last album did, with fluttering chimes that give way to an album of the kind of gorgeous folk-tinged baroque-pop that can literally feel like the beginning of a new day. The songs on Skip a Sinking Stone are as delicate and intimate as the ones on Love's Crushing Diamond, giving the impression that you're seated in the same room with Lee as he quietly lays them all down. What sets them apart is just how lush they are.
Mutual Benefit is Jordan Lee, an artist who has been quietly releasing music since early 2009. His 2013 debut album Love’s Crushing Diamond quickly accelerated him to a cult status – a bright spark in a sea of artists desperately trying to master the influence of say Sufjan Stevens or Sparklehorse. And while he could be easily compared to those artists, second album Skip A Sinking Stone allows him to solidify himself as a timeless craftsman – something more than just a comparable genre act.
Skip a Sinking Stone is a feast for the ears. The textural richness, the nuance and subtlety of the instruments used, the arrangement and production… After one listen I was glutted on it but kept going back for more. It’s the sort of album that makes you want to buy better headphones to make sure you’re not missing anything when you listen to it.
Preserving the sylvan elegance of the band's full-length debut, Love's Crushing Diamond, Mutual Benefit follow up with a similarly tranquil and contemplative sophomore LP that flows from song to song like a babbling brook. Overlapping strata of impressionistic piano, acoustic guitar, bells, chamber strings, and scene-setting synths form the instrumental intro "Madrugada," which may well evoke images of scampering water fairies befitting the album's title, Skip a Sinking Stone. The nature imagery isn't conjured by accident; rather it's found-sound and field recordings, such as the crickets in "Nocturne"; they're blended into the soundscape among other bits of manipulated noise, all conspiring to produce veritable indie-pop tone poems.
Slipping effortlessly between wispy, lo-fi gospel and warm trails of orchestration, the second album from Mutual Benefit (aka Jordan Lee) doesn’t want for scope, the prevailing mood coy, lithe and appealing. A little reminiscent of late-period Spiritualized or a mariachi-weaned Beirut, Lee weaves delicate patterns, minor keys reflecting off the major, Wayne Coyne-esque vocals floating gently on the tides of reminiscence. Skip A Sinking Stone isn’t an immediate record, and neither is there anything particularly novel in its utilisation of imagery, but that’s picking holes for the sake of it; tracks such as Getting Gone and the titular Skipping Stones balance naturally, the harmonies gentle, the acoustic guitar, piano and strings positioned with grace (even Nocturne, the brief, mid-point instrumental – is beautifully phased and elegantly phrased).
Jordan Lee had quietly released six albums prior to 2013, so Mutual Benefit didn’t exactly come out of nowhere three years ago. But Love’s Crushing Diamond sounded like it did: a document of emotional and physical displacement during Lee’s “year of notable absences,” its florid, orchestral folk was an anachronism compared to the slick, extroverted, and heavily-hyped pop that defined that year's indie breakthroughs. Much about Mutual Benefit remains in 2016: Lee’s still a wandering spirit surrounding himself with an orchestra of friends, recording in “forests, attics and hotel rooms” and it still sounds completely out of step with prevailing trends.
Comforting singer/songwriter music gets a bad rap among many "indie music" fans. To be sure, it's earned that reputation—for every Seven Swans, too many other artists veer straight into James Taylor territory. But it's still an oddity to see nakedly hopeful emotion emerge behind musicianship that's simply beautiful, without the music being either saccharine or just plain boring.
The one time I met Jordan Lee, I didn’t know what to expect. The band came through my small college town en route to Durham, NC with Noah Kline’s ambient project Cuddle Formation and stopped to play our rickety art space on a cool Wednesday in November. The three moved with a wide-eyed warmth and funny, charming sincerity as we talked immaterial theory, astrology, and the embarrassing world of amateur electronic sports.
An album of two distinct halves, ‘Skip A Sinking Stone’ is made for extended listening sessions, flipping the sides over on a record. Its first half, taking place in the year that proceed Mutual Benefit’s debut LP, finds Jordan Lee in what could be considered a settled life – something manifested in its breezy instrumentation and major key meanderings. The second half however sees Lee in New York, gifted with having the time to work on the new record full-time, but dogged by a growing depression, and a downturn in the relationship that delicately colours the first half.
When “Not For Nothing”, the first single for Jordan Lee’s latest album as Mutual Benefit, was released this past winter, it appeared as a jarring shift in style. Anchored by acoustic guitar and piano, the song felt like Bright Eyes circa I’m Wide Awake, It’s Morning, rather than the more complex arrangements fans have grown accustomed to. It showed both a willingness to experiment and a refusal to be boxed in, as well as a troubling sign that the new album might have lost sight of what made Mutual Benefit so captivating.
For Mutual Benefit and their ever changing line-up, life on the road has always posed a bit of a ‘have your cake and eat it’ dilemma. Songwriter and band mainstay Jordan Lee, like so many, aspired to be a musician but has subsequently become reticent of touring and being away from home. Skip a Sinking Stone is the band's first record in three years, and as the opening instrumental "Madrugada" limbers up and reigns in a busy array of field recordings, it begins to form a sound altogether more polished than we’re used to hearing on previous albums.
The month of May certainly didn't overwhelm Carl and I as much as last month did, but it was still chock-full with important releases to whet our appetites until the summer begins. Carl was also significantly more generous - though he's completely enamored by James Blake's winning streak, I ….