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album review: jeff beam, be your own mirror

Bass player with The Milkman’s Union by day, solo artist by night – Jeff Beam of Portland, Maine, is a busy man. Having released a plethora of solo material over the past few years (check out his Bandcamp page for evidence of just how prolific he is), 2012 brings another new album. Be Your Own Mirror was recorded over a twelve month period by Beam, who also wrote and performed much of the album himself. The man is accomplished.

It’s a strong collection of tracks and one that benefits from Beam’s extensive abilities as an audio engineer. His fractured, vulnerable and yet undeniably affectionate vocals are all over this record, as are an assemblage of intriguing and exotic instruments played by guest musicians (sitar, cello, French horn and cittern, to name a few). But without his aptitude as a studio arranger and engineer, its components would not add up to the solid album of which these 9 tracks comprise.

Gorgeous opener ‘Whispering Poison in His Ear’ features as its centerpiece an e-bow and viola saturated crescendo, bookended by Beam’s acoustic guitar, frail vocals and lo-fi drum sequencing. It’s a stunning introduction to an album full of surprises.

‘Part One’ begins as a classy Elliot Smith-esque indie folk song; its soft, enveloping soundscape giving it a tenderness and warmth which makes it immediately welcoming, before it all comes unglued in a gloriously fuzzy guitar break-down, reminding the listener of just how unpredictable this journey will be. Its instrumental companion ‘Part Two’ is the most playful moment here. Its lack of vocals allows Beam a degree of freedom with the track’s composition, as the focus shifts entirely to the music; a clever use of piano, cello, guitar, bass and percussion. It’s a mischievous track pieced together in the studio and one can tell that Beam delighted in its formation.

Released as a download prior to the album’s availability, ‘Now’ is a pretty song, if a little meandering. It’s pleasant enough, but its tameness makes it a strange choice for a lead single when there are so many other more vibrant songs on the LP.

Spacey, tripped-out psychedelic jam ‘Congratulations on Your Latest Achievement’ brings to mind the experimental krautrock eclecticism of Neu!’s classic ‘Hallogallo’. Featuring a relentless, driving, hypnotic bassline, it’s a track which could be three times its five minute duration and still not seem long enough.

Album closer ‘Destroy All Solutions’ is compositionally the most fascinating song in this set. It’s a collage of ideas and sounds. Hushed backing vocals, trumpets, morse code, sampled conversations, French horn, disheveled guitar and rollicking piano combine to create an aural art-installation that would fit nicely onto any of David Bowie’s Berlin-era Brian Eno collaborations. It’s a wave of delicious sound that washes over the listener in peaks and troughs over its seven minutes, never outstaying its welcome.

Beam’s excellent production on the album is let down slightly by the thin mix on ‘Existentially Speaking’ – a good song featuring some affecting elements; a great bass performance, effortless lead guitar and inquiring lyrics (“I never thought I would figure out / Why the hell we are here / But then I realised that we could all disappear”). Unfortunately much of it is lost in the lightweight mix.

Beam touts his music as psychedelic rock, and in fairness to him for reasons of commerce, it needs to be described as something, but it is certainly more than that. It’s difficult to pigeonhole this album neatly into one genre. If it’s not dabbling in indietronica (‘Whispering Poison in His Ear’), the LP takes delight in toying with our expectations by following that track with the unique saloon-blues of ‘Hospital Patience’. It’s a ride.

Special mention must be made of the purchase options of which Beam has availed his listeners for Be Your Own Mirror. As one of the remaining true believers who still gives a shit about the manner in which his art is presented, the album is available as a download and CD, but also as a cassette tape (limited to 30), each with handmade artwork containing a uniquely painted cassette. The ‘product’ thereby transitioning from music-as-art to music-as-artifact. Brilliant.

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