When Ottawa, Canada music scene staple Ben Wilson (aka That's the Spirit) released his first, ultra lo-fi cassette E.P. 'I Like His Older Stuff' on a whim, he didn't figure much would happen. 'Older Stuff', after all, was recorded with two ghetto blasters, a broken Radio Shack mic, a cracked classical guitar and an ancient delay pedal that caught fire during recording.
A while later, though, a web search revealed the uniquely haunting basement recording was hitting the top 10 on college radio charts. While Wilson's other bands (Polytones, Department of Foreign Affairs, and Kelp Records' beloved Paperjack) continued to draw crowds, a new buzz was developing in the form of That's the Spirit, which gave Wilson a chance to put his own stamp on things, coming from more of a My Bloody Valentine/Iron and Wine/Yo La Tengo-type place. A classically-trained pianist with a degree in Music, Wilson's as experienced composing for film and TV (including compositions for the NFB, HGTV and CBC) as he is putting out rock records. But it was the serious inspiration derived from his lo-fi-cassette solo success that led him to set out recording a proper solo album in early 2008 -- written, recorded, mixed and produced himself in true DIY/control-freak fashion. This time with more higher-fi studio trickery he'd picked up as a recording apprentice, and without anything exploding.
The press, radio and blog love-in that has followed the release of 'Staying Places' has been exponential since the original release: the UK's Line of Best Fit called it "a spotless, near-perfect release"; The Ottawa Sun called it "breathtaking" and Soundproof Magazine called it "one of Wilson's most inspired projects to date." Described by NPR's All Songs Considered as "gorgeous [with] intricate arrangements", 'Staying Places' is played on stations from commercial radio in the UK, to the BBC, to the CBC, to college radio in Canada and the U.S. Since the release, the five-piece space-folk outfit has been selected to play some of the hottest festivals in Canada, including showcases at Toronto's North by Northeast, Canadian Music Week and Pitter Patter Festival, at Calgary's Sled Island Festival, opening for Flaming Lips on the main stage at Ottawa's Bluesfest, and was hand-picked by Apostle of Hustle to open a tour spot. The band was a pick of the month in Electronic Musician Magazine, and the song "Head for the Hills" was featured on Degrassi: The Next Generation, airing in 130 countries.
A travel-themed album, made 'for explorers and armchair travellers alike', 'Staying Places' is winning over new fans and charting new courses for Wilson and his band.
Live, a combination of folks round out the band's compelling, unique performance, including Nicholas Dyson (once a sideman for Gladys Knight) on trumpet, Tom Thompson (pedal steel guitarist for Kathleen Edwards and Jim Bryson), Brennan Pilkington on drums and Simon Wright (Village Bicycles) on bass, combined with loops, rhodes organ and samples.
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Publicity/Contact: Ben Wilson, (613) 608-0290
ben wilson, guitar, vocals; brennan pilkington, drums, vocals; simon wright, bass; tom thompson - pedal steel guitar, rhodes, keys; nicholas dyson - trumpet.
Staying Places (Antique Room Records, Canada release date (CD) and International (digitally): September 23, 2008)
I Like His Older Stuff (Antique Room Records, re-released 2007, independent, streaming mp3s available at myspace.com/ilikehisolderstuff)
NPR 'All Songs Considered' May 09
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"Perfect for an early-morning road trip through the countryside... The folky pop songs on the band'..."Perfect for an early-morning road trip through the countryside...
The folky pop songs on the band's debut album (Staying Places) are held together by gorgeous production [and] intricate arrangements."
-Michael Katzif, NPR
The Line of Best Fit (UK) - Oct. '08
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This album is a hard one to review. Oh yes. Not because it's bad, its brilliant, and I'm so impresse...This album is a hard one to review. Oh yes. Not because it's bad, its brilliant, and I'm so impressed by That's The Spirit (Ottawan native Ben Wilson, with some help from a few good friends) that to put into words how much i like this album would take up 3 pages and probably only consist of the word 'incredible'. And that wouldn't make a good review. When i do try, whenever i geta good point in my head, i automatically forget it because im too lost in the music. This album feels like an album. It isn't a collection of songs loosely bundled together. It's a positive cloud of music, something almost tangible. When 'Staying Places' is playing, an atmosphere is created that is ethereal, almost dream-like and at the same time, a focused concentration of well placed instruments and vocal lines. Infact, if i wasn't woken up slightly by the vintage piano introduction of 'It's Curtains For You' (a track that drifts across your mental horizon halfway through this release, and then leaves after less than two minutes), 'Staying Places' would have me in a trance from start to finish.
Anyone familiar with the current trend of Folk/Americana/Alt-Indie sweeping over the American and Canadian music scene will probably not be surprised by what they're hearing when they first play through 'Staying Places'. Well written music, gently sung, with obscure and ornate instruments popping in and out to add colour to what are essentially simple 3 minute minus pieces of music. For the uninitiated, expect from 'Staying Places' surprising and inventive songs that will mature greatly over multiple listens. One of the best parts of Ben Wilsons opus is the way that every time you play through the tracks, you hear them in different ways. A bit hard to describe, but you just notice something new every time. For example, the main thing i noticed on the first listen of 'Always Coming Back' was the way that it contrasted quite strongly to the first few tracks purely for having an afrobeat, stomping drum line. Second time through it wasn't so much a "party" song, and i bypassed it completely only to get hung up on the sweetly plucked guitar lines in 'Epic Advice'. It's like there's too much music for one album, and it's constantly fighting for prominence. This competitiveness means that the next time your brain clocks onto a particular element of a track, or a song as a whole, you can be guaranteed that it won't sound quite the same as the last time you heard it. This shows an astounding ear for song crafting. Not even songwriting, song crafting. It feels almost like Ben shaped the songs physically, putting little pieces in here and there to surprise or amuse, rather than just being sat infront of a mixing desk or apple computer.
Moving on, if i was to attempt to summarise the lyricalcontent of the album, i would probably prefer to refer you all to his press release. And before you shout out loud at such lazy journalism, its obvious to anyone that the best person to tell you about that is the artist himself (or at least his pr team), and as it was summarised so excellently, i would only butcher and misinterpret.
"From one angle, it's a snapshot of the mind of the postmodern traveller - always wanting to be somewhere else, constantly in search of that idyllic exile, in a shrinking world with exhausted global space....From another angle, though, it's a personal reflection of that age-old conflict of putting down roots versus extending branches - the comfort in routine, versus the challenge and excitement of the unknown and uncharted. From any perspective, Staying Places is meant to be a soulful, optimistic album for explorers and armchair travellers alike."
There. But come on Ben, how was i supposed to guess that? Listen to the lyrics and actually put some effort into a review? Oh....that's quite an idea!
Highlights of this album are many and commonplace, too many to go into without requiring a full dissection of the album. Clever use of natural reverbs, the way the almost brit-pop guitars of 'Every City' sit perfectly with Ben's vocals, delivered with a soft throat comparable almost to Mike Love of Beach Boys fame in places. Indeed, comparisons to Brian Wilson may even be used when considering the composition of the album, which is always high praise. Shades of Grizzly Bear and Menomena can be found singing through at times, especially on 'Unmake Me' and 'Orienteering' respectively, to offer another two points for relation. However, it's much easier (and feels a lot more validating) to say that this is a spotless, near-perfect release. Maybe i've just fallen in love with it, but i can see this album staying just as strong over time as it is now. It certainly packs a punch, albeit a punch covered in the fluffy woolen glove of spaced-out folk.
Canada, it seems, has its share of great artists making great music that combines quality songwriting and a skilled hand for lo-fi, delicate production. Sadly though, all we hear about on U.K. shores is Broken SocialScene and their in-house bands. That isn't necessarily a bad thing, as Broken Social Scene are incredible songwriters and musicians, but if there was any justice in this world, 'Staying Places' and indeed Ben Wilson would be household names in Blighty as much as Kevin Drew, Brendan Canning, Feist, Emily Haines et al. are. Fans of the previously mentioned should check this gentleman out, because he makes top drawer folk music, and can easily stand shoulder to shoulder with the likes of Bon Iver and Iron And Wine. And for a debut effort, this is an undeniably evocative and accomplished collection of songs. Let's just hope the postmodern traveller in him doesn't decide to settle down before he gets his music (and himself) over to Great Britain to chart the uncharted some more.
Ottawa Sun 2-pg. feature Oct. '08
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Oct. 29, 2008 EVERYTHING IN ITS PLACE: Ben Wilson has found in That's the Spirit a project that em...Oct. 29, 2008
EVERYTHING IN ITS PLACE:
Ben Wilson has found in That's the Spirit a project that embodies all his influences
By ALLAN WIGNEY
Ben Wilson finds yet another voice with his latest project.
Midway through the compelling musical travelogue that is Staying Places, Ben Wilson's voice strains with emotion as he serenades us with a gentle, restrained love song.
Now Yr the One, one of many breathtaking moments on the debut full-length from Wilson's That's the Spirit project, is a ballad that hints at an unlikely influence for the veteran local rocker: Simon and Garfunkel.
"Definitely," Wilson confirms. "The doubled vocals. The plucked guitar lines. I can't hide my influences. And they all show up in this album."
Wilson is referring to internal as well as external influences. Lyrically, Staying Places reflects lessons learned during Wilson's travels in North America as well as overseas. But the eclectic collection of songs also draws inspiration from Wilson's journey through Ottawa's music scene and the bands that have been his home over the past 14 years.
"I like each of my projects for a really different reason," Wilson observes. "The Polytones are excitable and danceable and I love the energy. Dept. of Foreign Affairs is all about musicianship. Paperjack's stuff is just fun stuff for a band to play.
"Those three things combined make me want to record things in different ways. And definitely they all showed up."
Of those three popular local bands, only The Polytones remain active. But Wilson might add two other names to his list: Orienteers, the experimental project he maintains with pedal-steel player Tom Thompson; and Fisheyelens.
The latter was a "pet project" of Wilson's that represented his first tentative steps toward a solo release more than a decade ago. An assortment of Fisheyelens lo-fi recordings, I Like His Older Stuff, was quietly released in 2000 to, Wilson eventually learned, some acclaim.
"I literally have thousands of songs on cassette," Wilson recalls. "Eventually, I got up the nerve to play them for someone and he thought I should put it out.
"So I made a few CD-Rs and sent a cassette to campus radio stations. Years later, I Googled myself and found out it had been on charts and stuff. I thought, 'Okay! People liked it!' "
That response played a role in the birth of That's the Spirit, the latest outlet for Wilson's solo excursions. Bolstered by confidence gained from that Google search, Wilson set about recruiting Juno Award-winning producer Laurence Currie to bring a full-length album to life.
"I wanted to have an outlet for some songs but to give them more of a hi-fi treatment," Wilson explains. "So this time last year I made a plan. I made a huge list of how I was going to get this record done, because I wanted to do it so much. I started a band to back it up and I applied for grants. But the grants didn't come through, so I couldn't afford it."
Hence, the following production credit: "Written, recorded, mixed and produced by Ben Wilson."
The composer also plays all instruments, save for Brennan Pilkington's drumming, a pedal-steel contribution from Thompson and crowning touches from trumpeter Nicholas Dyson. All will be on hand Saturday, along with bassist Simon Wright, to take us on a journey.
"It's kind of a Zen thing -- being happy where you are against wanting to explore the unexplored," Wilson says of the themes behind Staying Places. "That's the conflict on the record. Like any good movie, I wanted it to have some character."
Staying Places is not lacking for character. Neither is That's the Spirit -- even if the supporting cast is subject to change.
"It's my solo project," Wilson concludes. "Whoever wants to play with me is more than welcome, but it's important for me to keep it open because amazing gigs can come up at a week's notice and it's good to have a bunch of folks that know the songs.
"That's partly what I like about it -- the freedom to do stuff without making decisions five ways, without a democracy. I have control over my own project. For other stuff, I've got my other projects."
That's the Spirit with The Flats
- Where: Zaphod Beeblebrox, 27 York St.
- When: Saturday, 8 p.m., $5 advance
Exclaim! Magazine review Nov '08
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"...Shows off Wilson's skills behind the mixing desk as much as his songwriting ability...sleek guit..."...Shows off Wilson's skills behind the mixing desk as much as his songwriting ability...sleek guitar lines and several deft changes of gear...breezy, wistful songs [that] share high-end production values with power pop bands like the Shins."
24 Hours Magazine - April 09
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"'Staying Places' is a thoughtful, upbeat and sometimes brooding collection of mature indie-pop with..."'Staying Places' is a thoughtful, upbeat and sometimes brooding collection of mature indie-pop with production of a quality that offers both depth and clarity."
Soundproof Magazine Dec. 08
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"One of Wilson's most inspired projects to date... there's a softness to [the songs] that makes you ..."One of Wilson's most inspired projects to date... there's a softness to [the songs] that makes you want to listen to this album over and over again."
Ottawa XPress feature - Oct. '08
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October 30th, 2008 That's The Spirit Trekking or staying places? John Holmes Wilson: "I w...October 30th, 2008
That's The Spirit
Trekking or staying places?
Wilson: "I was using whatever I could afford: a couple of ghetto blasters, a delay pedal that caught fire and a microphone that had fallen apart"
photo: courtesy of sonicbids
Ottawa native Ben Wilson's That's The Spirit project recalls the road
Trekking alone for days on end is not everyone's idea of a good time. But for Ottawa musician Ben Wilson, hardcore long distance walking is a real thrill. He sure has some stories to tell. "In England, I did the North Downs Way. I walked three days until, in the middle of the night, my flashlight burnt out in a forest in the pouring rain," he recalls. "I had to feel around for trees, and it took me about three hours in the pitch black to find my way out. I ended up in this little village. Drinking in the bar afterwards I knew I better write about the experience."
Formerly of Paperjack, and currently performing with The Polytones, Orienteers and Department Of Foreign Affairs, Wilson has been a prolific figure on Ottawa's indie scene for years. His walking adventures appear on Staying Places, a new travel-themed album under the name That's The Spirit. "It's good to pick a theme and write around it. I read a lot of travel literature, and it's a theme I've always been comfortable writing about," he explains.
Staying Places is a big departure from Wilson's previous solo record, lo-fi EP I Like His Older Stuff. "I was using whatever I could afford: a couple of ghetto blasters, a delay pedal that caught fire and a microphone that had fallen apart," he recalls of the recording process for the first release. Wilson's home studio is now much better equipped, and Staying Places has a rich, warm sound.
Musically, it's also much more complex. "None of these songs were played
live before I recorded them, and some of it ended up sounding a lot different to anything I'd done before," Wilson reveals.
Orienteering, the opening track, is a case in point. "I wanted to try something with a really lilting time signature that kept changing, and add brass instruments. There's not really a chorus, just extended verses." Much of Staying Places has a breezy feel reminiscent of Yo La Tengo or The Shins. Then occasionally, such as on Every City, Wilson turns up the amps and adds noisy, shoegazy guitar.
Now that Wilson has a family, his more extreme travelling adventures are over. "I like to weigh up putting down roots or extending branches," he muses. "Family ties against wanting to travel influenced the album for sure."
With his studio and label Antique Room expanding to release records by other Ottawa artists, including Parks And Recreation, putting down roots doesn't seem too bad an option at all.
That's The Spirit
@ Zaphod Beeblebrox
Ottawa Citizen CD review - Oct. '08
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"That's the Spirit bravely releases a concept album that requires one to listen to it as a whole...A..."That's the Spirit bravely releases a concept album that requires one to listen to it as a whole...A swirl of space-folk, post-rock and blissful pop".
mp3hugger (UK pre-release review)
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"...A most perfect Yo La Tengo/Apples in Stereo/Sparklehorse swell of imagination... clever, hook la..."...A most perfect Yo La Tengo/Apples in Stereo/Sparklehorse swell of imagination... clever, hook laden and blessed with delightfully flitting brass and Wilsonâ€™s genuinely warm voice. A near perfect piece of indie pop then."
-Mp3hugger, August 25, 2008
Herohill (pre-release review)
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"...Makes me remember why I was so intrigued by Wilson's songs on first pass. Completely accessible..."...Makes me remember why I was so intrigued by Wilson's songs on first pass. Completely accessible and now, polished just enough to give the songs the depth they need, Staying Places is looking like a record that will turn a lot of heads."
set = 40 mins. approx (can play longer or shorter as necessary)
2. head for the hills
3. always coming back
4. the blue of distance
5. epic advice
6. every city
7. unmake me
8. now yr the one
9. it's curtains for you
10. lost in the middle 8
11. made up my mind
12. nearer, my sleep, to thee
There are no upcoming dates at this time.