Ben Davis has cut a wide swath through the area's music scene, first as bassist for Harrison, Va.'s Sleepytime Trio, then "tri-founding" Chapel Hill's angst-y, emo-influenced Milemarker, now releasing his first solo project, The Hushed Pattern of Relief. On discovering that he was going to become a father, Davis decided to forgo touring for family life and stayed in North Carolina when the rest of Milemarker moved to Chicago (they're touring the United States and Japan for their Jade Tree Records debut). Like many self-professed "music nerds," he began to spend his late nights holed up in his bedroom, putting ideas on tape.
But Davis hadn't lost the itch to perform, and as his collection of new material grew, he brought in some friends to learn the songs. These collaborative sessions, with Davis backed by The Comas' Andy Herod and Nicole Gehlweiler, Matt Brown (Mayflies USA) and Tom Laney (Pancho Holly), along with Jonathan Fuller (Sleepytime Trio) on drums, were so successful the "band" decided to go into the studio. The result--recorded by Brian McTernan at Salad Days in D.C.--is a sparse, hypnotic release full of repetitive riffs and motifs, ringing piano lines and haunting, minor-keyed guitar phrases, sometimes bringing to mind Death Cab for Cutie (especially DCFC's Songs About Airplanes) gone slowcore (think Low, tempo-wise, or some of the Saddle Creek contingent.) Sonically, the drums have the live, plashy room sound you associate with the Chicago producers (Bob Weston, Albini). But some of the tracks--such as the album's dreamy closer, "Wrestling Won't Help"--dispense with drums entirely. And you don't miss them.
But Davis' style is all his own; he constructs a song by layering a vocal harmony here, a keyboard or cello flourish there--rippling the surface as the current moves on. A prime example is the track "Your Terms Are Now Mine," where the song's melodic nuances shift over an unchanging, three-chord song structure while Davis--his voiced placed in the mix as if it's just another instrument--murmurs "there's a reason for it. ... " And you believe him.
Subversively beautiful and unashamedly poignant (Davis dedicates the album to his son, Ricky), the songs reflect a mature point of view--Davis will never resort to waving a self-referential pain flag (no Conor Oberst here). An important local debut that charts a new direction for the "Chapel Hill sound," The Hushed Pattern of Relief deserves a nationwide following.