Photo by Neal Casal
Marco Benevento is used to doing a lot of things for himself: Since he launched his solo career six years ago, Benevento has co-founded the label that releases his music, The Royal Potato Family, and built the studio, Fred Short, where he works every day that he’s not on the road. And in the past, of course, he’s written, arranged and played his largely instrumental anthems, leading a band from behind his customized piano and a tiny armada of drum machines and sequencers, keyboards and pedals.
But until Benevento set out to complete his fifth album under his own name, he’d never sung his own songs, a strange omission for music that’s so often been lyrical. That changes—decisively, assuredly, triumphantly—on Swift, the boldest and most bracing album of Benevento’s career.
“I never really liked the sound of my singing voice. I have a low voice. I can’t really sing too high. It’s nasally,” Benevento confesses. “But I had to get over it. And now, singing is awesome.”
Sure, 2012’s TigerFace opened with two vocal gems, the greasy “Limbs of a Pine” and the gorgeous “This is How It Goes.” But Rubblebucket’s Annakalmia Traver had handled those melodies, and Benevento assumed for months that she’d handle these, too. At one point, though, he decided that he liked the way his voice was sitting in the songs he was building; that it felt not only interesting, but surprisingly intuitive. His wife, Katie, would join him in the studio and sit with him at the piano, helping him to shape strings of nonsense syllables into words he liked. And in November 2013, he invited Ween’s Aaron Freeman, a nearby neighbor and longtime friend, to visit the studio and offer criticism of what he was singing and how he was singing it. Freeman had specific quibbles and improvements, but he largely approved of the work Benevento had done, providing the boost that powered Swift toward completion.
“It was nice to be tested and prepared by a singer I really like. It was validating,” Benevento explains. “I’m surprised it took me this long to sing, but growing older, getting into music by The Band and James Booker and the Grateful Dead, the singing door has opened. It’s a new instrument.”
Benevento’s urge to commandeer the microphone and fill the record with his thoughts isn’t a mere power grab from a bandleader. To the contrary, bassist Dave Dreiwitz (Ween) and drummer Andy Borger (Tom Waits, Ani DiFranco, Norah Jones) flex more than ever before on Swift. Dreiwitz dances atop the start of “If I Get to See You At All,” his rich fuzz-tone affording the melody the feeling of a sinister carousel. And on “The Saint,” he and Borger emerge as powerhouse, the viscous bass line rumbling over drums that slow and spring, stutter and stomp. A minute into the track, Benevento has to wait for just the perfect moment in which to slide his silvery piano. Swift is an unselfish album, then, guided more by a sense of giving songs maximum impact than proving the incontrovertible worth of the players who made it.
That directness is due in large part to Richard Swift, the esteemed indie rock producer who invited the trio to his Oregon studio to record the album that, in turn, Benevento named for him. Benevento’s sister-in-law lived nearby, so he’d gotten to know Swift through years of touring. He’d also fallen in love with his work thanks to Swift-helmed albums such as Foxygen’s We Are the 21st Century Ambassadors of Peace and Magic and his own song “Lady Luck.” Benvento says that several mixtapes Swift compiled and put online—humid spheres of vinyl static and rubbery bass, woozy soul and swerving rock—saved his life on several long, late-night tour drives. He trusted Swift’s ears, and he wanted to put this record in his hands—to go to Oregon, record for three days, let the producer produce, and do as little tinkering to the results as possible.
“I was sick of going back to my studio and turning a session into something else. I wanted my process to be different. I wanted someone else to say, ‘Leave it like that,’” Benevento says. “I was surprised how easy it was going to be. I made two or three edits, and it was done.”
That comfort and energy radiate throughout Swift, an album that’s every bit as delightful and kinetic as its title suggests. Opener “At the Show” is a handclap invocation, the big-bottomed drums and Benvento’s fleet keyboard line motioning toward the dance floor. “Eye to Eye” moves with an indomitable, street-smart swagger, while closer “Free Us All” prompts eyes-closed, mouths-open bliss. Even “No One is to Blame,” the album’s ostensible down-tempo drift, can’t suppress the excitement of the new setting, the new singer or the new approach. Its climax offers arching catharsis, Benevento’s multi-tracked harmonies curving like a rainbow.
“To finally make a record that feels and sounds like a record; something that is musically consistent and almost thematic, whereas my other releases have been so stylistically diverse,” says Benevento, “is, for me, an accomplishment.”
He did it himself, you could say—and then some. The Royal Potato Family releases Swift on LP, CD and Digital on Tuesday, Sept. 16.