The brilliance of Kind of Like Spitting has always been Ben Barnett’s unique voice and songwriting acumen. Over the span of at least six full-lengths, assorted EPs, compilations, and even cassette releases, Barnett has spun tales of love and longing, sometimes with raw emotions stripped bare, sometimes with a wry sense of humor that’s surprisingly refreshing. Perhaps one of the most poignant and tragically overlooked indie singer/songwriter, Barnett is equal parts Bob Nanna, Isaac Brock, and Conor Oberst, while a strong voice all his own.
In the Red is an intriguing release with an intriguing history. Recorded in five days with Death Cab’s Chris Walla at the helm, Barnett and his label at the time butted heads, and the album rusted away on the shelves. It was reborn with producer Dave Achenbach, and the songs were reworked with a new intensity and raw eagerness. The result is apparent in the album’s impassioned energy and sly dichotomies.
The light, bouncy acoustic guitar and flute accompaniment of the opening “Aubergine” bring to mind Sufjan Stevens or like-minded popsters, and it would be easy to miss Barnett’s tongue-in-cheek tale of an artist trying to get recognized. The light track is a jarring contrast to the brash electric guitars of “We Fell All Over You,” which takes a more serious rock approach. Stay with it when things are shifted another 180 degrees for the folky “Worker Bee #7438-fb7904,” which is really acoustic guitar and vocals, letting Barnett’s lyrics shine. These songs demonstrate the strength of Barnett, who is one of those rare artists who can make either variety equally stunning and evocative and put such diverse tracks back-to-back-to-back and still provide a cohesive album.
From there, the album continues to evolve. “Spin” is raw and quick, while still just vocals and acoustic guitar, stripped down to the most bare elements and possessing the album’s most evident bite. The title track is head-bobbing electric rock, and “Sherrif Ochs” is lovely folk, with flute making another appearance alongside gorgeous guitar. “Bubble Congress” is the tightest rock song here, with excellent layered instrumentation and an electronic snarl of guitars that brings to mind Braid at times, while “All Hail!” is actually punky a la The Thermals. Harmonica on “Songs for Annie’s Harmonica” gives the song a bit of a Bob Dylan folk feel, while “Grapes” is quiet and starkly personal, much more Nick Drake than Dylan. “The luckiest asshole I’ve ever met is playing music on my bed again,” Barnett sings along with female vocals on the pretty “Line and Sinker.” And for those who enjoy Barnett’s stripped-down, singer/songwriter style of old, “Finishing” carries that along, before he demonstrates his country stylings on the closing “Passing Through.”
If you’ve heard one KoLS release, you sure haven’t heard them all. Barnett has changed dramatically over the years – sometimes on the same album – but he never loses what makes his music so striking: his raw urgency and intensity. Even his rather warbling voice conveys that brilliantly, but the true brilliance is in his songwriting. Few others can write such evocative songs in one style, let alone such contrasting styles. If this album is a bit jarring in its diversity, it can be forgiven in its cohesion and strength of songwriting.