unsparing sea
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unsparing sea

Lakewood, Ohio, United States

Lakewood, Ohio, United States
Band Rock Folk


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"Syscraper Magazine Review"

Better than you might expect. The
self-released debut album from northern Ohio’s
UNSPARING SEA, A Cloud in the Cathedral, gives
with an odd but likeable mix of low-key chamberfolk,
the old-weird America and deck-shifting sea
chanteys. Cellos, saws, banjos, harmonium, and
glockenspiel pull together to provide a somewhat
disorienting sonic palette that places this album
in the land of the psych-folkies. But, the becalmed
beauty of such cuts as “God Will Protect the Naïve”
and opener “O! Form, O! Place” keeps Unsparing Sea
from becoming unmoored. This could easily have
been a precious and pretentious mess, but main-man
J.R. Bennett has a gift for songwriting. - SKYSCRAPER MAGAZINE

"Bend It Like Bennett"

Volume 15, Issue 30
Published November 28th, 2007
A Variety Of Influences Distinguish Unsparing Sea's New Album
By Emily Anderson

THE UNSPARING SEA - Influenced by "literature." Like the music they create, J.R. and Robyn Bennett attest, "We're not really of this time period." "We're entrenched in another time, I guess," says J.R. Bennett. "We're not very modern people. We don't have cell phones, cable TV or the Internet. The Internet kind of creeps me out a little bit. It's definitely a tool for promoting music. It's something I have to use."

Unsparing Sea is a six-member band comprising J.R. and Robyn Bennett on vocals/guitar and keyboard/organ, respectively, Akron Symphony Orchestra cellist Tara Klein, bassist David Maison, drummer Ethan Wilt, and Sarah Wormsworth on saw and glockenspiel. The songs they've fashioned with this eclectic mix of instruments are thick with themes of seafaring, wanderlust and getting lost in the fog. On their new album, Cloud in the Cathedral, leisurely string arrangements paired with the mechanical discord of the saw quickly bring to mind tall ships and billowing sails.

"There's something romantic about ships and the sea," says Bennett, but it's not just the sea that he's wrestling with. Superb tracks like "National Guard" and "A Lion With No Teeth" are fraught with a quiet anxiety. Bennett's lilting voice rings out over the music like a humble shiphand giving the dinner call, but his lyrics demonstrate a profound reverence for the unfathomable.

"Some of the songs are really inspired by literature," he says.

That literature deals with striking out on your own. J.R. lists a few of the books and authors who've influenced the band's music. "Hemingway, Salinger ... I think Robyn's got a copy in her purse." (Robyn looks toward her satchel. "I actually do. It's sad.") "Jack Kerouac. Lonesome Traveler, On the Road. You can't hitchhike or hop trains anymore. There's sort of romanticism about these things, I think."

There's an Americana whimsy to J.R.'s musical ideology that isn't unfounded. J.R. and Robyn both hail from Nashville. "I did start out recording songs in my bedroom with a four-track cassette recorder. I played writers' nights in Nashville and stuff and met some really cool people." Looking for a change, J.R. and Robyn took a chance on Cleveland and don't seem to have many regrets.

"We just wanted to see what the Cleveland music scene was like, see what happened from there," he says. "Everyone's been really welcoming. Everyone shares drummers and apartments. It's a very tight-knit thing."

Despite an obvious appreciation for wayfaring and roughing it, J.R. and Robyn aren't starving artists by any means. J.R. works in design at a downtown architectural firm (he designed all the packaging materials for the new album himself), and Robyn works at a downtown law firm. Interestingly enough, not one member of Unsparing Sea is originally from Cleveland.

Countrified Nashville influences pop up on Cloud in the Cathedral, like on "Where Serpents Held Esteem" and "I Wasn't There," a swaggering, banjo-wielding romp which alludes to the whiskey-sour heart of country & western with lyrics such as "When an absolution comes and all the myths you've conjured up/and all your books and wars must end/God knows when you pretend."

"Growing up in Nashville, you sort of rebel against country music," he says. "Country pop certainly is stupid." J.R. and Robyn then pause to acknowledge the greatness of Johnny Cash, Bob Dylan, Kris Kristofferson and Waylon Jennings. "I would say my keyboard playing is a lot like the legendary Bob Dylan," Robyn says with a laugh. Still, in its fantastical scope, Unsparing Sea has more in common with Neutral Milk Hotel and the Arcade Fire, which they list among more contemporary kindred spirits. "We do like Arcade Fire. A new one for us is Dr. Dog. Dr. Dog is where it's at, I believe. It's music like ours that sounds like it's from a different time, but still manages to sound fresh."

Cloud in the Cathedral was recorded in August and September at Zombie Proof Studios in just six days. Nate of the X-Bolex produced the record, which is now available on the band's Web site, unsparingsea.com. Unsparing Sea have played out sparingly (sorry!) in the past two years since they formed, but now that they have a solid album to push, they'll be doing as many shows as possible in the coming months. First, they'll be opening for the band Unwed Sailor at the Grog Shop on Dec. 3.

"We really want to get people to the Grog Shop," J.R. says. "We're hoping to do a few mini-tours in the near future -Michigan, Indiana, New York. Our big goal now is to play lots of shows, so keep an eye out for us."


"A Cloud in the Cathedral"

By D.X. Ferris
Published: November 28, 2007

As far as we know, Unsparing Sea's full-length debut is the only CD that gives a credit shout-out to eeriness. There are also plenty of cellos, harmoniums, saws, glockenspiels, and accordions on A Cloud in the Cathedral, a majestic sprawl of baroque psychedelia and Victorian gothic. Frontman J.R. Bennett obsesses over old-world imagery. Sinking ships, ghosts, and a vengeful God fill songs like "The Forgotten Bones of Miles Standish." But it's not all Plymouth rock: "Where Serpents Held Esteem" ponders a final judgment, even though the Pilgrims would approve of the wobbly waltz. Still, for every wandering chamber-pop hymn, Bennett and company toss in a twangy acid jam like "I Wasn't There . . . " And don't skip the lyric sheet: The quieter tracks only sound like instrumentals.


"God will Protect the Naive"

Cleveland and nautical inspired folk music may seem like an odd pairing. Sure, we have Lake Erie, Commodore Oliver Hazard Perry, and the War of 1812, but when you look at the modern shoreline and see a highway running along the coast, an airport to the east, and heavy industry to the west, there's little to be romantic about. Yet, it's the boundless possibilities of the open waters that helped shape the debut album, A Cloud in the Cathedral, by Cleveland's Unsparing Sea.

"God Will Protect the Naive" is quite literally the calm before the storm. As a slow, steady wave ebbs and flows from the string section, a simple four measure melody struggles to have itself heard. It moves from guitar to voice and its echoes can be heard in the cello, but it's never strong enough to overcome the constant hum. The vocals of singer/songwriter J.R. Bennett are hardly audible until three minutes in, when you can discren the plea, "God direct me. Please protect me." The waves may strengthen, and the cymbals may gently rumble in the distance, but he's rarely threatened, and the storm never appears. For now, at least, there's safety to be had in the constant sounds of the sea.

Unsparing Sea - God Will Protect the Naive [download]

A Could in the Cathedral by Unsparing Sea is one of the most pleasant surprises to emerge from the Cleveland music scene this year. I will definitely have more on this album in the coming weeks. When I emailed JR Bennett concerning its availability, he assured me that it will be out soon-ish. Music Saves and Bent Crayon should have copies within the next couple days. If you can't make it out to one of these Cleveland stores, I'm sure if you contact the band through myspace, then they would surely help you out.

- irockcleveland.com


Its ascent to local indie-darling status has been swift, but chamber-pop sextet Unsparing Sea has plenty of staying power. After releasing its nearly epic debut album Cloud in the Cathedral, Unsparing Sea has played a slew of packed house shows. "Everyone seems to be really on board with what we're doing now," says frontman J.R. Bennett. "I think we're a better band than we used to be, so that makes it easier too." A band of this size and scope (instrumentation includes cello, saw, and harmonium coupled with your usual drums, bass and guitar) demonstrates a great degree of professionalism and restraint on Cloud in the Cathedral. That make it all the more enjoyable when the band lets loose at live shows, sometimes leaving headlining acts in the dust. If you haven't caught its whimsical blend of orchestral finesse and Nashville swagger, you'll soon have your chance. You can catch them opening for the Chicago folk-rock/indie pop act 1900s at the Grog Shop on Jan. 6. - EA - THE FREE TIMES

"Where Serpents Held Esteem"

Listed in the Big Book of Rock Rules, between Rule #6, "Bottled water is for nine piece indie pop bands with xylophone players and hand clap girls," and Rule #8, "Bigger doesn't mean better, it means bigger," is the all important Rule #7, "When recording a debut disc, err on the side of brevity." Even if you're convinced that you've completed your masterwork, and it's sure to garner an eight, or maybe even a nine from Pitchfork, save the extra songs for later. If you survive, or by chance thrive on your debut, then by all means give us 60 minutes more.

Thankfully, Unsparing Sea, didn't consult the Big Book when they recorded their debut, A Cloud in the Cathedral. At nearly 60 minutes, the songs and their sentiments, are epic and grand, and at times, even recall the lionized work of Jeff Magnum and Neutral Milk Hotel. And instead of finding filler within those 60 minutes, a fear which fuels my skepticism of long, ambitious debuts, I continue to find songs, and moments inside of those songs, that make it even more endearing.

On "Where Serpents Held Esteem," Unsparing Sea's JR Bennett returns to his familiar motif of the open waters. Like "God Will Protect the Naive," where there was comfort and shelter to be found in its steady ebb and flow, the sea again presents itself as a beacon of hope during a time of bewilderment. It opens with an eerie howl slicing through the gentle swing of acoustic guitar and cello, as Bennett surveys the landscape of a desolate California, decimated by the collapse of the coast line. As he sails onward from the shore, he can feel the spite of the fish in the ocean aimed at the entirety of the human race, causing him to lament, "Humans are more foulable than the animals we eat." You can feel the tension in Bennett's voice. It wavers as if it's been roughed from weeks of being subjected to cold, salty winds. Unsurprisingly, when he does find his muse, there is no respite, and he finds no answers, "I met a woman in the water who sang and read my palm/And as we reached the shore she sang my future in a song/ She said, "The body is a vessel and your soul is a seat/ and that the human heart grows heavier with each person you meet."

Please pardon my pun, but Unsparing Sea have started to make some waves on the local scene. In addition to scoring one of my top NE Ohio releases from 07, they were recently named one of the Cleveland Free Times' 10 Bands to Watch in 2008. Their debut disc, A Cloud in the Cathedral, is out now and is available from the band's website or myspace.
- irockcleveland.com

"The Storm Before the Calm"

Located in the basement of a nondescript office building on East 40th Street, Unsparing Sea's rehearsal space is so inhospitable that the band has to escort guests into its confines. "It's scary," says singer-guitarist J.R. Bennett before we navigate the treacherous stairs and dark, low hallway leading to a damp room decorated with Christmas-tree lights and a plastic skeleton.

"A lot of people have come through this basement," says Bennett.

In fact, Bennett and cellist Tara Klein are the only original members of the group, which formed in 2006. Klein joined after responding to an ad she saw at the Cleveland Institute of Music.

"I was looking for different types of musicians — cellists, violinists and trumpet players — so I put up some flyers," says Bennett. "Tara was the only one who responded. An orchestra would have been nice, but a cellist is perfect. It's better, actually."

The group released its debut album, A Cloud in the Cathedral, last year, which it recording locally at Zombie Proof Studios. The Six Parts Seven's Tim Gerak heard the band at the Beachland Tavern and offered to record the next album at his Mammoth Cave Studios in Akron. With new drummer Ryan Kelly, Unsparing Sea adopted a noisier sound on their new CD, In the Diamond Caverns, showcased on tunes like "Diamond Caverns" and the rollicking, could-be-a-drinking ballad "Here, Here." But their baroque-pop sensibilities still come across clearly on "Sandpaper/Sadpaper" and "Sing Devil Sing," songs that sound like Nick Cave crossed with Wilco.

"We started out kind of folkier, [but] Ryan's background is different because he was in a band in Denver called Sleeper Horse that was more punk rock," says Bennett. "As a result, we've moved on from the early stuff and don't really play it anymore."

"All I've ever played is punk rock," says Kelly. "We all have different musical backgrounds, which is kind of cool."

Even after the album was recorded, the band's lineup continued to shift. Bassist Dave Molnar — a local journeyman who's played with Dreadful Yawns, New Planet Trampoline, Artificial Sweeteners and the Hot Rails — replaced Mike Marks, who left the group after he got a government grant to hike the Appalachian Trail.

Even though membership hasn't been constant, the artful album graphics and CD-release invites haven't changed. Bennett says the artwork represents the band's music.

"I'm interested in graphic design, and the music to me feels like old mixed with modern stuff, so that's kind of the aesthetic," he says. "It feels like that's what the music is at this point."

The band's CD-release party will feature several former members. They'll open with a new, untitled song and then perform the new album from start to finish. Band members will also hand out prizes.

"I think Ryan is giving out hugs," jokes Bennett. "Actually, we're going to give away the In the Crystal Canyon EP along with the new album."

With solid back-to-back albums, Unsparing Sea have gotten into a groove, and hopefully their fine new album will be heard outside of Cleveland.

"It's all just happening right now," says Bennett. "The actual release date isn't until November 24, so we're way out ahead of this. We'd like to take it on a tour, probably after winter. We're really just throwing it out there to see what happens." - Cleveland Scene

"In the Diamond Caverns by Unsparing Sea"

In speaking with Unsparing Sea's JR Bennett a few weeks back, he stressed the importance of not recording the same album twice when he and his bandmates went to work on the follow up to their stunning debut, A Cloud in the Cathedral. It's a fine sentiment, to be sure, but so many here in Cleveland fell in love with that disc and its skilled arrangements and its detailed depiction of love, loss, loneliness and redemption across the vast oceans. What if they made a rock album, or a noise album, or even worse, went all Sufjan on us and composed a suite of songs celebrating the Detroit-Superior Bridge?

Well, it turns out all that trepidation was for naught. Through near constant line up changes, the soul of the band remains in tact with Bennett's narratives as strong as ever and cellist, Tara Klein, lending gravity to the proceedings. If there is a shift in sound on their sophomore album, In the Diamond Caverns, it can be heard on tracks like, "Diamond Caverns," where their bleary-eyed weariness is replaced with an up tempo jangle reminiscent of Neutral Milk Hotel's much adored, In the Aeroplane, Over the Sea. Conversely, slower numbers, like, "All I Want," should appeal to fans of their earlier work as well as those who found themselves engulfed by the multi-faceted folk of Phosphorescent on his 2007 album, Pride. Together, these two sides of Unsparing Sea not only show a band intent on growing their reach as artists, but also a group poised to expand their appeal beyond the shores of Lake Erie and on to a nation wide audience.

Unsparing Sea's In The Diamond Caverns won't be out nationally until November 24th, but us locals will get a chance to pick up a copy when they celebrate its release this Saturday night at the Beachland Tavern. Trouble Books and Casual Encounters are opening. - irockcleveland.blogspot.com

"Proper Noun of the Week #12: J.R. Bennett from Unsparing Sea"

The spring and summer of 2007 I didn't listen to much indie rock that wasn't made in Cleveland. I was still living in Texas then, but through intrepid internet searching and I Rock Bill's intrepid blog, I was able to learn a lot, and immersed myself thoroughly. By the time I arrived, I could converse thoughtfully, had I had anyone to have such conversations with, about albums by the likes of Coffinberry, JJ Magazine, Beaten Awake, and Expecting Rain. I was ready to go, ready to live here.

Upon moving here, I discovered Music Saves almost right away, and returned to a national selection of indie music. I still kept up with local artists and had as much fun checking out the weeknight local bills as I did most touring shows, but my focus on recorded music mostly left the 216 area code. By the end of that year, I was touting the brilliance of the latest Besnard Lakes as what I thought of as the most brilliant album of the year.

Actually, it was the co-most brilliant album of the year. The other one was a gorgeous piece of genius by Unsparing Sea. I'd caught them live a couple of times, and picked up a couple of albums at their shows, but always found myself mailing them to friends as gifts. One day, around Christmas, when I was in Music Saves doing some holiday shopping, I couldn't find the record among the other "U" selections and asked whoever it was on duty that day if they were out of it. At that point, they said the magic words - "Check the local section" - and I learned that these dudes were actually from here. How crazy was that?

Since then, I've had other similar discoveries (most recently by checking The Modern Electric's myspace page to see if they'd be touring through Cleveland any time soon, only to learn they were from Cleveland), but the Unsparing Sea folks have kept a special place in my heart. I send them fan mail from time to time, occasionally geeking out with book suggestions, and though he probably couldn't pick me out of a line-up, front man J.R. Bennett has always been kind and tolerant of my goofiness.

When I learned that their new album release party was coming up this month, after I got done cheering, I immediately decided to see if J.R. would want to do one of my proper noun of the week columns. Being the good (and tolerant of goofiness) guy that he is, he obliged. Check the outcome of that conversation out below and DEFINITELY check out Unsparing Sea when they release their newest album, In the Diamond Caverns, on Saturday 10/24 at the Beachland. - clevelandbachelor.blogspot.com

"Lost at Sea review - (8 out of 10)"

Despite its stature as the smallest and shallowest of all the Great Lakes, Lake Erie has claimed its fair share of innocent lives. It may not be an unsparing sea, but such tragedies as the wreck of the freighter SS Edmund Fitzgerald have been immortalized in song (by Gordon Lightfoot) and beer (by the Great Lakes Brewing Company's outstanding porter). A Cloud in the Cathedral, the debut LP from Cleveland natives Unsparing Sea, gives us a dozen ripping good yarns from days of yore, drawing inspiration from the environs of Cleveland's shores.

"As sure as the trees grow/ I'm wide awake," yowls J.R. Bennett on the album's opening shanty, "O!form, O!place." Bennett's vocals immediately recall Wayne Coyne circa Transmission from the Satellite Heart and Clouds Taste Metallic, slightly off-key and straining, while the lyrical content reminds us of The Decemberists (the band, in a list that would make Colin Meloy proud, describes the album as "twelve drunken hymns… and stories of ghosts and serpents, sailers [sic] and soldiers, wars and rumors of war, the Lord, the Anti-Christ, black hearts, cigarettes, fowl speak, lion's teeth, and sinking ships"). Unlike Meloy, however, Bennett's lyrics are not tremendously poetic, though he tries ("I've been around ships/ that sail. Bayonets and/ silver whales. Civil wars/ and throwing stones/ God loves your tired bones"). Sinking ships are essential pieces of Bennett's lexicon.

As for the music, it is superb. Tara Klein's beautiful cello work features prominently in nearly every song, which adds a certain sense of longing to the album. Some of the arrangements are purely gorgeous, as on the string-centered "A Lion With No Teeth." A Cloud in the Cathedral is often somber, with melancholia wandering throughout the tales. The album's mood reminded me of the two Mermaid Avenue volumes, Billy Bragg and Wilco's compilations of Woody Guthrie material, but in a maritime setting. Bennett contributes his talents on the guitar, piano, and saw, with David Maison and Marc Howell rounding out the official group. A handful of collaborators contributed to the album as well, offering their skills on percussion, organ, and, most interestingly, "eeriness."

I'm slightly torn here, as I absolutely loved the atmosphere that A Cloud in the Cathedral creates. It's often sad and moving, though the storytelling is sometimes more abstract than detailed. But I just can't get past Bennett's vocals, which at times distract from the arrangements. They're really the only thing stopping the album from near-greatness. Let me admit, though, that the voices of Wayne Coyne and Colin Meloy once grated on me, too, but with time they found ways to work. And so I'll give Bennett's unique style a chance to grow on me and mature. Ultimately A Cloud in the Cathedral is close, very close, like all of those star-crossed teams of Cleveland sport have been on the storied shores of the great lake of Erie.
- lostatsea.net


November 2009
(a BROKE.TUSK. Release)

(Self Released)



Wolves at weddings plotting an assassination, chivalrous choirs singing hymns of hallelujah, conversations with ghosts on life and love and the longing to find one’s self through a maze of smoke and fauna, with guest appearances by Satan himself. These are all inroads to the narrative world of Unsparing Sea’s sophomore effort, In the Diamond Caverns (Released November 24th). From the hypnotic opening to the crash and clang of the band’s unique mixture of atmospheric indie-rock and odd-ball ‘Califone’ style Americana, folk and drone, it never becomes quite clear if the narratives at hand take place in the physical realm or in any one of a million dream cycles incurred in a single night of sleeping.

In 2008, on its debut album, A Cloud in the Cathedral, Unsparing Sea established its surrealist literary salutes to Hemingway and Dylan Thomas setting them to melancholic strings, minimalist guitar and a tumbling rhythm section. Self released in the summer of ‘08, ‘Cathedral’ received an enthusiastic response from music blogs and websites and from established national magazines like Skyscraper. The modest attention sparked invitations to perform, most notably, at the North by Northeast Music Conference in Toronto, as local shows were regularly filling up. The band was called one of “10 bands to Watch” by the local Free Times magazine and the hand packaged debut was named a finalist in the 8th Annual International Independent Music Awards. Not bad for a scarcely circulated debut recorded and mixed in three weekends.

Not content to stay in one place, the new album, In the Diamond Caverns, finds the band expanding its established dynamic and exploring familiar themes in a bit of a different setting. With a revolving cast of musicians and some new collaborators, Unsparing Sea entered Mammoth Cave Studios in Akron, Ohio in the winter of 2009. Recorded and mixed by Tim Gerak, from longtime Northeast Ohio favorite sons ‘6 Parts 7’, the resultant album of classically adorned indie rock and old soul story telling conjures a carousel of images. Its recurring themes of leaving, losing and finally returning to the places you belong are universal, even if their delivery proves a bit challenging to the casual listener. Songwriter J.R. Bennett, fellow founding member, cellist Tara Klein, drummer Ryan Kelly, bass player Mike Marks and multi-instrumentalist Sarah Leitten have crafted a unique album experience owing a great deal to the rust belt sensibilities of its region of origin. In the Diamond Caverns is sure to surprise those unfamiliar with the band if given a proper listen and sure to please the Unsparing Sea faithful.