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Third eye blind: Benjammin’s happy apocalypse

After a long month guest-covering the local-music scene, politically minded reviewer and all-around-good-boy Nicholas Holt was ready for his most formidable challenge yet — co-reviewing with me the recently released sophomore album of Asheville’s own shiny-headed, open-mic Pollyanna, the unsparingly optimistic Benjammin’ (formerly one Benjammin’ Bernstein).

In fact, reviewing Shining From Inside turned out to be more daunting than either of us expected. For one thing, Benjammin’s style — a semi-spiritual, world-music-inspired kind of acoustic-folk so seemingly naive it often sounds like parody — is obviously intended for reviewers of altogether different musical mindsets than our own.

Still, keeping in mind our duty to report the truth, the whole truth, and, well … we trudged through to the end of our oral assessment, hand-held recorders rolling. “Highlights” of this conversation are excerpted below.

Steve Shanafelt: “Wow. This album is just one notch up on the bland-o-meter from a mediocre children’s musician working the tonsillectomy-ward circuit.”

Nicholas Holt: “You don’t get the sense that Benjammin’s ever ridden a southbound train, and gone blind because his baby sent him a letter in the rain.”

SS: “Most of his lyrics do have a sort of blindly optimistic bent to them — like in ‘Billions of Angels,’ where the world is put right from all the crime and pollution by a swarm of cherubs who flutter down from the sky and send everyone to sleep. It’s perhaps the most-happy version of the apocalypse ever.

“The thing is, Benjammin’ obviously knows his way around a guitar, he’s obviously got a good sense of the kind of mood he wants to evoke in a listener, and he’s chosen great backing musicians like River Guerguerian and Joe Ebel to help him. On the whole, the album’s production quality is excellent, even if [the CD] sounds so sterile, I’d be inclined to believe it was recorded in one of those clean rooms they use to make microchips.

“‘We’re All One’ … I believe, is supposed to be a blues song, only without the part where rotten things happen, and you generally feel sort of displeased about it. Instead, it seems to [actually] be about not minding Hare Krishnas so much.”

NH: “This is cognitive-dissonance music; it’s music for people who know there are things wrong in the world — like how [Benjammin] talks about Israel and Palestine learning to get along in ‘Peaceful’ — but who really don’t want to think about it seriously, because it makes them extremely uncomfortable.”

SS: “Listening to Shining From Inside is the opposite of listening to the blues … it’s an album of passively happy music that ends up making you feel much, much worse.”

NH: “It’s like the soundtrack to one of those courses where you can build wealth and prosperity with just a positive state of mind. If only those people who live in Liberia would take the same approach to life, I’m sure they’d be fine.”

Rating: SS: “2 out of 5, because of above-average production values.”

NH: “1.5 out of 5, because he can play his instrument.”

Benjammin’ will play the inaugural Mellow Music Night at Ideal Market & Cafe (733 Haywood Road; 258-5393), from 7-9 p.m. on Saturday, Nov. 22.

Your piece of tradition, available now

Few annual festivals do A-list musicians consistently name-drop with awe — and WNC has proudly claimed one of the biggies now for more than 15 years.

MerleFest 2004 — celebrating the music of the late Merle Watson and his legendary, blind, flat-pickin’ dad Doc — is slated for April 29 through May 2, on the Wilkes Community College campus in Wilkesboro.

And tickets for the 17th-annual event have just gone on sale.

To order online, visit www.merlefest.org; via fax: (336) 838-6263; via phone: (800) 343-7857; by snail-mail: MerleFest, PO Box 120, Wilkesboro, NC 28697.

The official Web site will also get you a current list of scheduled performers (an amazing lineup), plus info on everything from potential lodging to special-seating situations — and directions to Wilkesboro from just about anywhere.

— Frank Rabey

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