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As a fanfare of scratching cellos and a lone cornet sets the stage for the disc's opening cut, you can visualize a group of Reconstruction-era miscreants lazily making music on a large, rundown back porch in the Deep South. Over sparse, Salavation Army percussion, singer "Benjamin" croons in a brogue worthy of Pere Ubu's David thomas: "I fell asleep, I fell asleep in love, I fell into a hole."

It's not often that you stumble onto a record with as rare and fragile a sense of majesty as the debut from this Atlanta quintet. A serious and depresing work of art, Heaven is both artfully constructed and beautifully orchestrated. It's inevitable that the warbling, throaty-voiced front Benjamin will be tagged a Tom Waits surrogate. But the truth is, Waits hasn't sounded this possessed in years.

'Heaven' takes 1993's fine OFQ disc 'The Love That Won't Shut Up' one step further into the murky depths of the gothic South. Musically, the tunes have grown from utilizing a more conventional backdrop of electric guitars to a gentle, often eerie tapestry of cellos, cornet and banjo. Fellow ex-OFQ members Bill Taft (also an alumnus of the Jody Grind) and Brian Halloran provide the odd combination and inventive use of these instruments, giving this disc an impact that may not suit all ears.

There are surprising and effective textures at every turn. The banjo strumming on 'Curtsins' contrasts with layered whispers, a resonant cello passage gives the melodic 'Hank Aaron' a fragile chamber feel, while repetitive dissonance turns 'The Trip' into a ragtag mantra. Smoke pulls at the elements together on 'Luke's Feet,' an odd waltz-time piece with Benjamin musing over a photograph of Luke Perry ("This glossy, airbrushed picture of Luke Perry's feet keeps me on my toes so to speak/my hero worship intact and indiscreet") and an encounter with fellow storyteller Vic Chesnutt.

Introduced on last year's OFQ disc as "the man, the woman, the paragon of mental health, Miss Opal Foxx," Benjamin draws on the tradition that has inspired fellow Georgians like Chesnutt and Bruce Hampton to create vivid lyrical imagery. His lyrics may be less evolved than his cohorts', but Benjamin makes up for his momentary lapses of self-indulgence with a sharp, focused intensity.

Michael Lipton
LA Weekly

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