One Hundred Breakfasts With The Book
DL | Limited Edition Cassette
Out 29th January, pre-order on Bandcamp.
Los Angeles-based songwriter/multi-instrumentalist Ben Varian’s latest album is a veritable chocolate box of delights over which the influence of Steely Dan hovers. Louder Than War’s Gordon Rutherford reviews these LA stories.
For those of us who were growing up in the West of Scotland, Los Angeles seemed as accessible as Tolkien’s Middle-Earth; a Shangri-La that annexed our lives every Saturday via the movies or TV cop shows. It was a burg that, on the surface, oozed neon sophistication; one where the handsome, quirky denizens were all armed with a 44 Magnum and a pithy one-liner. And when Roddy Frame crooned “from Westwood to Hollywood”, he sang (quite literally) on behalf of a small enclave in a Lanarkshire new town.
Sonically, LA-based songwriter and multi-instrumentalist Ben Varian’s latest album, One Hundred Breakfasts With The Book, is all of my younger envisioning of Los Angeles come to life. On the surface, it shimmers like a frock on Oscars night, but as we all know, all that glitters isn’t gold, and rather than being a portrayal of a perfect life, Varian’s songs are quite the opposite.
Our protagonist describes One Hundred Breakfasts With The Book as a “zany, amorphous, and unpredictably beautiful telling of our imperfections”. With subtlety, Varian rails against the spuriousness of the glamourised Hollywood dream by lifting the rock under which humanity cowers and allowing us to peer underneath. The perfect example of this occurs on Spend Some Time (With Your Mind) when he sings “Sit-ups and push-ups/And a room with a view/Cherries, strawberries/Maybe drugs will do it too”. Those lines aren’t untypical of the album as a whole and lyrically it is smarter than a dolphin with a PhD in astrophysics.
As a collection, this is a kaleidoscopic bucket of charms, one in which you have no idea what’s coming next. Varian specialises in crafting little gems straight out of the classic American soft rock playbook as he hops and skips across the genres, knitting a carefully sculpted bricolage of influences together seamlessly.
Unusually, for a modern, digital-centric album, the strongest tracks (in my view) are stacked in the second half of the album. The first half is more than passable, but there is nothing really jumping out of the grooves and sending your fedora flying. Instead, we have to wait for track six (of thirteen) for that to happen, but when it does it is worth the wait.
Period Chart is analogous to a vintage piece of seventies song-writing, awash with lush harmonies and featuring a Bach-influenced (J.S, not Barbara) organ hook. It’s a tune that wouldn’t be out of place on Can’t Buy A Thrill. The Floor Is A Lady Too maintains the standard, with its infectious shuffling beat, gorgeous hook and a chorus that is so reminiscent of the refrain in Lou Reed’s Perfect Day.
Immediately afterwards we have the track that most epitomises Varian’s versatility. Teardrop is the perfect example of the idiosyncratic, unpredictable nature of this album – and it is quite wonderful. It begins as a straightforward ballad before morphing into something that could’ve filled the floor in Studio 54’s heyday.
Mournful Dixieland trumpets and the jazz piano of In The Garbage Of My Life sees Varian deviate wildly again. Then it’s another left turn with the David Berman influenced country strut and screwball lyrics of Goodbye Scoundrels.
One Hundred Breakfasts With The Book is an album that is absolutely worth checking out, particularly if you are a fan of the likes of Steely Dan, Silver Jews and Burt Bacharach. It is quite dizzying in its effortless ability to shift lane and it highlights Varian’s brilliance as a musician and songwriter. My one tip, however, is to be patient and hang in there for the second half. It’s worth it.
There is no doubt in my mind that Ben Varian is deserving of a wide audience. He may well be from LA, but he certainly shouldn’t be confidential.
All words by Gordon Rutherford. More writing by Gordon can be found in his archive.