Welcome to the first in a sporadic series of lessons in music snobbery. Though this space will usually be reserved for straight up record reviews, there will, from time to time, be info dedicated to highlighting lesser-known or forgotten albums that deserve your attention as soon as possible. Read on and spend money accordingly.
Ben Barnett is perhaps one of our generation’s most important singer-songwriters.
With an unabashed tendency to delve into his personal life and openly display feelings of inadequacy, loss, misery, obsession and hope, Barnett reaches a level of introspection and self-examination that few others of his ilk can even begin to approach. Think of him as a workingman's Conor Oberst with access to an effortlessly lyrical mind. As such, the reissue of 2002's $100 Room (and its first time on vinyl) is not only great news for longtime fans of Portland, Ore.- based KOLS; it is also a glorious chance for newcomers to become inducted into the fold.
Room is a veritable cacophony of differing styles and ever-changing tempos and signatures sewn together into a conceptually brilliant lamentation on the topics of breakups, punk rock politics and self-hatred. Moment to moment, Barnett and company transition in and out of indie-rock/emo moments that reach from straight gorgeous to folky, finger-picking missives, to his own heart that rides the fence someplace between well-known country arrangements and the early works of Weezer and just plain fast-tempo punk rock breakdowns. What this produces is a sort of cross-section of earlyaught underground sounds wrapped up in a tidy indie package.
There's a thematic element of placing one's love on a pedestal that begins with opener "Hook" then pops up throughout the record and always centers the listener on what Barnett is trying to convey—hurt sucks. It isn't uncommon for restrained moments to suddenly burst into tonally fascinating guitar riffs or for Barnett to proclaim those hard-to-bear but necessarily stated thoughts, like on "Free Advice" when he reminds us that, "Even if it hasn't been that long, she's none of your business anymore."
And even though Barnett may be considered a sort of poster boy for the underground Northwest emo sound, it's in his ability to face his demons head-on and exorcise them without a trace of self-pity or manipulative lyricism that sets him apart and makes his music so interesting. $100 Room can be viewed as a story, and in the journey from the certifiably bleak beginnings of "One Bird. One Stone" and the past-dwelling and borderline unhealthy a cappella of "B-Side Poetry" followed by the eventual realization/humanization of the one who hurts on "Cater" and then the closure of Billy Bragg's "Little Time Bomb" we learn that things do get better once we are honest with ourselves.
Barnett was always on the cusp of superstardom and remains a lesser known but equally loved contemporary of bands like The Thermals or Elliot but is arguably better than either. $100 Room can be described as obsessive or depressing, but these are the kind of well-crafted songs that unite the broken-hearted and give them a voice for every sad, weird thought they ever had after it becomes apparent that we all have the capacity to love the last person on earth who ever deserved it.