Benj Rowland’s quirky Community Garden is a folk road less travelled.
Benj Rowland is well aware of what a troubadour song sounds like, but he isn’t interested in adding to the pile of songs about road weariness and past lovers. It’s almost like the Peterborough-based multi-instrumentalist walks out the door each day and is about to write a song about mountains or his city but instead finds a much more interesting topic at a granular level. Rowland has decided there aren’t enough songs about local venues that aren’t as cool as you think, the number of car accidents you might cause in a day, or musicians who make Robert Johnson-esque deals that don’t end tragically.
This is all to say Rowland makes many left turns while still creating beautiful folk melodies on Community Garden. The closest Rowland gets to a more traditional troubadour song, “Mountain Road,” still turns into something closer to a medieval square dance in its last half. Whether he backs himself with banjo or accordion, Rowland can be wry in one song and heart-on-sleeve passionate the next.
“Ballad of the Pigs Ear” deftly balances nostalgia for a long-running local venue with the realities of playing shows in places like that: “I’m not sentimental about playing one last show/Where the sound sucks and the cover’s low,” Rowland sings of the Peterborough tavern that closed in 2017. The reality of touring and playing shows rears its head a few times, though nowhere is it funnier than in “Don’t Approach the Introvert,” a song that would feel right at home in Paul Simon’s catalogue. Rowland grows tired of people talking to him after shows and then dryly ruminates on other introverted musicians. That the staccato accordion doesn’t quite sync with Rowland’s vocals only makes it more charming.
Rowland also paints vivid character portraits throughout Community Garden. “The Oldest Home Bum” tells the tale of a local drunkard, introduced in a story that sounds like it will be positive but quickly nosedives. “Opeongo Line,” with its moody drums and bass, brightly outlines a man trying to make a wage while doing backbreaking work. Closer “Hand Me Down My Synthesizer” is a dark banjo-led tune about a seedy man named Milky-Eyed Jim: “Milky-Eyed Jim, he was a liar/He said hang me by the telephone wire.” The creepy song eventually becomes a storm of whirring electronics, like your radio going haywire during a violent storm.
Much like a community garden in the real world, Rowland’s Community Garden is full of characters you won’t interact with on a daily basis but are full of stories you’ve never heard.
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