Listen to this track by melancholic British acoustic pop duo Ben & Jason. It’s “Widow’s Walk”, the lead track off of their 1999 record Emoticons. If you’re detecting that classic, Nick Drake vibe coming off of this track, it might be because Drake string-arranger and school friend Robert Kirby was called upon to write up the charts for the strings on this song.
Of course it helps that Ben & Jason worked well together to take that Nick Drake sound, and mix it with a late ’90s British rock sound. Ben Parker (vocals and guitar) and Jason Hazeley (keyboards) had put out a record in 1998, Hello, which locked into that moodier rock space that seemed to follow the chirpy irony of Brit-pop. The duo’s acoustic pop and chamber pop leanings created the same sort of overcast atmosphere as, say “No Surprises”, or “Lucky” from Radiohead, yet with enough pop elements to invite less gravity.
Yet, there was more to this collaboration than met the eye, stylistically speaking.
“Widow’s Walk” is one of my favourite opening tracks on anyone’s album, sort of gentle and aggressive at the same time, with Ben Parker’s voice slightly ethereal, and slightly incoherent. It’s one of those vocal performances where it’s the sound of the voice, its timbre, that really adds to the whole effect. And the strings kind of play in and out of that timbre with contrast and counterpoint.
But, what’s also apparent here is the subtle electronics which offset the acoustic textures to be found on this song, and on the rest of the album too. The duo’s affinity for electronic textures allowed them a collaboration with dance act Kinobe, and a track that scored some club success in the single “Slip Into Something”, which appeared, among other places, in a compilation for mainstream music magazine Q, compiled among other tracks representing that very 1990s-turned-2000s electronica subgenre – chillout.
Being on a major label Go Beat!/Universal, there was some pressure on the duo to hit the pop rock mainstream. But, with their biggest hit in “Air Guitar” (also off of Emoticons) scoring a #77 on the charts, the prospects seemed slim even if the material was of very high quality. Same old story, then.
Parallel to their own recording careers, the duo made themselves into a pop writing team penning chart hits for actress-turned-singer Martine McCutcheon. And they brought out their follow-up to Emoticons with Ten Songs About You, a decidedly more pop-oriented album than the moody folk pop of their first two.
But, Ben & Jason saw the writing on the wall as a band. Actually, to be fair, they wrote it on the wall themselves by going out on a high, in the form of their very solid, and final (to date) album together, titled Goodbye. Of course, there is that mysterious message on the Ben & Jason MySpace page, reading “Are we back?” and dated April 2010. With a year having gone by, maybe the answer’s no, or ‘not yet’. But, who knows?