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Rock/Pop

Gentle Ben

Barroom queens and butterfly girls; not you average pop record

MT photos: Cybelle Codish
Cyllus (left) and Howard at White Room studio.
John Howard
Producer John Smerek
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Published 1/18/2006

When Cathie Hubers was pregnant with her singer-songwriter son Ben Cyllus, she was gigging in a lounge act with Ben's natural father, entertaining bleary Holiday Inn clientele throughout the Midwest. And you can picture Cyllus' folks too, on Nebraska drives between hotels, under yawning starry skies, at once hopeful of the future and frustrated with the '70s-polyester present, some new memory waiting in the shimmer of city lights barely visible on the horizon.

If you listen to Ben Cyllus' 13-song, self-released album Cinnamon Matinee you get that feeling, particularly in "Arkadelphia," "Barmaid Beauty Queen" and the lovely lullaby "Meanwhile the Moon." There's an inherent romance and longing that gives weight to open-road glides on dusky, two-lane highways, on long stretches through provinces of night.

If Cyllus' lineage says anything about the genesis of his will to make music, apparently he hasn't much considered his time in the womb. "Maybe there was something that got locked into my brain," he says with a quick shoulder up-and-drop.

And, sure, Cyllus has done his share of entertaining impassive clientele with his acoustic guitar for chump change; of bearing coffee-quaffing bores and five-and-dime Ferlinghettis at local open mics and poetry readings — but he stepped out of that scene, for now at least. Even on a cursory glimpse, Cyllus — with beard, loose cowboy shirt and dark, wide eyes — looks like what would result if you crossed Cat Stevens with Devendra Banhart.

Cyllus and his guitarist crony-in-song John Howard, along with producer John Smerek, concocted one of the most listenable local (and national) rock releases of last year in Cinnamon Matinee.

Cyllus and Howard collect in the upstairs loft of the singer's small and cozy rented home in Birmingham. There are vintage toy organs and guitars about, a table topped with open lyric pages and a few burning candles; a tiny drum kit is tucked away underneath. There's a small photo aged gray of Cyllus's father playing guitar, circa the '50s. This is the Ben Cyllus workstation, one that offers a window view of a vacant parking lot below and, further, the evening grind of traffic on Woodward Avenue. It's a quaint scene; hell, it's downright writerly and romantic. To underscore the setting, Cyllus' wife, Heather, climbs the stairs holding the couple's sleepy 6-month-old baby girl, Ava, and announces that they're off to bed.

Moments later, Cyllus, as if to define the moment — that there's more to think about than just The Songs — says, "I got my own ship that I'm sailing here."

Indeed he does. He's an optician by day, the family breadwinner ("We made the decision to not have a stranger raise our daughter").

Cyllus' musician parents split up just before he was born, and he grew up in the Upper Peninsula. He later bonded with his musical stepbrothers at his father's funeral, and moved to Dallas to play in a band with them. ("It was very Toad the Wet Sprocket," he says). He's already had one marriage go south. From the songs it's clear that he's gleaned certain wisdom from the living he's done, such that the themes hold listener interest.

He doesn't launch into me-me-me mode when queried about song meanings or his life story; he's no self-promoter and is graceful in the confidence that it's the songs that are telling. "You can tell I'm a pretty aggressive, dominating guy," he says, his eyes holding steady.

The youngish-looking Howard, who's an event marketer by day, is married with three children, and doesn't live far from Casa Cyllus. He sums up his scene: "We're the All-American family. Truth be known, I'm kind of a suburban guy." He tags his comment with talk of recent backyard landscaping that includes construction of a small songwriter quarters under a tree.

The pair met in 2000, when Howard was fitted for specs. A couple of years later they began playing together. Howard had been wallowing in local obscurity, doing time in cover bands; Cyllus too, aside from a 2002 EP (done with Smerek), was practically invisible in local music circles.

They soon became a songwriting team. "I threw out chord progressions and he laid these melodies and lyrics over the top," Howard says. "And it worked, it worked great." The two look at each other in a brief moment of mutual admiration and say simultaneously how they were shocked at how well they hit it off songwriting-wise.

A contemporary musical reference point might be Ed Harcourt, or imagine Ryan Adams minus the star pedestal, speed jags and trophy girlfriend. There's sadness-to-joy narrative supported with imagery (from motorbike racers to wooden-legged lawn cutters) that settle in the head, sometimes taking days to unfold. Cyllus can sing a line like "She'd rather be a butterfly" without sounding like he swallowed The Songwriter's Guide to Maudlin Verse — he's subscribed to the Hal David lyrical idea of "finding poetry in everyday language." "Traffic" and "Unpredictable You" are unadorned pop gems — and Cyllus' lilting croon works like airbrushed lines on the surface, but soon it floats up and down, in bell tones ("I used to sing next to my mother in church choir"). The images and story, the voice and music, equal a logical extension of Cyllus' song language, which runs the Hank, Dylan, Elvis Costello and Jeff Buckley gamut. Howard's the singer's foil; his pop gives slight tension to the singer's literate and traditional singer-songwriter faceplate.

Howard grew up "a pop freak." His adoration of the Beatles and Gram Parsons and early American roots music is apparent; each side rears discretely in the songs, in the major-minor changes, in the big pop choruses that provide the glue on more than a few.

There's a Tuesday Night Music Club feel to the way Cinnamon (which was recorded over a four-month span) sounds. Cyllus and Howard nod to that, the Bill Bottrell-Sheryl Crow collective that made the album of the same name. Cinnamon boasts piano and organ bits and runs by both Chris Codish and Russ Westerbur, and Pete Ballard's graceful pedal steel lines and harmonies are by turns warm and subdued, aged sounding. There's an antecedent line connecting early Neil Young and Poco up through Elvis Costello and Wilco — and then it stops here. But it isn't dad-rock, it's simply good songs. "John Smerek was the mad scientist on the arranging," Cyllus says.

Smerek, at Detroit's White Room Studio, is one of a few unsung Motor City producers; in capturing acoustic warmth and depth, the simple dynamics of traditional songwriting and performing, there's nobody better. You can practically smell the glowing tubes and cinnamon cone burners on this recording. It's welcome relief in a world of maximized hard-drive CDs and the absurd compression of downloads and too-loud remasters.

Sonics aside, it's easy to lose sight of the song, of the writing, when you have things like a family to support. To rattle a cliché, no one ever did anything worthwhile without headwind. Cyllus always kept the notebook open, the melodies streaming in his head, during long eyeglass-fitting days. "I would come home from work with 10 sticky-note pads with lyrics stuffed in my pocket. I felt like the songs were out of my control. They were traveling through me." Of course, Cyllus concedes that he "doesn't want to bend eyeglass temples for the rest of my life."

There's a live band now too, which includes Cyllus, Howard, Ballard, Ballard's brother Dean on bass, and drummer Mark Sentle.

The Cyllus-Howard songwriting team is holding on, breathing the last gasps of their youth, assured in the knowledge that they've mastered their craft. Sometimes that takes half a lifetime. Sometimes the rest of the world just needs to find out.

 

Appears Wednesday, Feb. 8, at the Lager House, 1254 Michigan Ave., Detroit; 313-961-4668.

 

Cinnamon Matinee is available at select local record stores and on iTunes.

Brian Smith is the music editor of Metro Times. Send comments to bsmith@metrotimes.com.

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