Tuesday, April 26, 2016

Robert Bensick Band's "French Pictures in London"

Estimable indie Smog Veil continues their documentation of Cleveland's rock underground with this, the latest installment in their "Platters du Cuyahoga" series. As every Velvets to Voidoids reader knows, Robert Bensick was a principal in the early-'70s synth-based experimental outfit Hy Maya, and a catalyst in the budding Cleveland scene. French Pictures in London is the previously unreleased LP recorded under Bensick's leadership in 1975 by a unit that included future Pere Ubu members Scott Krauss and Tom Herman. (The formation of that band effectively scuttled Bensick's plans to tour the material.)

Bensick (b. Sandusky, 1950) was a Cleveland State University art student who'd drummed in Nuggets-era outfit The Munx before he developed an interest in electronic music, started circuit-bending analog stomboxes into primitive synths, and participated in eclectic jams that brought together advanced thinkers from Clevo's visual art and music communities. The songs on French Pictures in London describe various characters from that milieu. The album was recorded in a professional studio for A&M Records under a deal that subsequently fell through (perhaps because it lacked the commercial appeal of Bensick's friend and booster, ex-Raspberries frontman Eric Carmen). The circuitous path leading to its release, as well as the background and events that led to its creation, are detailed in Nick Blakey's meticulously researched liner notes -- some of the finest historical rockwrite to come down the pike in a few seasons.

By the time these recordings were made, Bensick had reinvented himself as a quirky pop singer-songwriter-guitarist who also played flute and ARP and EML synths. Absent fellow Buckeyes Devo's high concept, Ubu's dark undercurrent, or Tin Huey's zaniness, the Bensick Band's closest auditory analogs are the Canterbury bands, with whom they share both early (pre-fusion) jazz-rock proclivities and a penchant for lyrical obscurity. Bensick's not a strong singer, so he compensates with an arch and artful delivery worthy of Bryan Ferry or Russell Mael. Keyboardist Michael Hronek, who helped Bensick shape the arrangements, and future Ubu guitarist Tom Herman, whose wah-drenched leads predict Funkadelic's Mike Hampton, provide instrumental spice.

The songs flow together to form a seamless suite. Standouts include "Lilly White," with its brisk forward motion and tasty flute solos; "Night Life," in which an ominous fuzz bass ostinato gives way to instrumental explorations; "Muse," on which Bensick declaims over moody atmospherics; "Sweet Pricilla," with its haunting Mellotron backing; and "Doll," an orgy of synth racket and mock dementia. French Pictures in London is an intriguing introduction to a unique musical voice and proof positive (as if any more were needed) that '70s underground rock still hasn't yielded all its treasures.


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