The landscape of indie rock doesn't lend itself to musical cartography: In less than three decades, the field has morphed from one filled with insouciant acts burying and burning hooks with distorted guitars and battering drums to one lined with impish harpists, gothic dance bands and bearded falsettos. Despite deep stylistic differences, aged guitar hero J Mascis now fits into the same superficial milieu as suave stylist James Blake, while the wordless crests of Explosions in the Sky cater to the same crowds and clubs as the verbose romp of The Hold Steady. In a field where new subgenres seem to form and fade on a weekly basis, the terrain is too inconsistent for any consistent survey.
But for the last decade, the music of New York keyboardist Marco Benevento has existed as a sea-tossed vessel somewhere between the shores of indie rock and jam band realms. Both under his own name and with his late circuits-and-drums pairing The Benevento-Russo Duo, the expressive instrumentalist has worked like a magpie, gathering the unbridled triumphs of post-rock with the compositional challenges of bebop.
The Duo's last album, 2006's Play Pause Stop, tempered the charged instrumental atmospheres of Explosions in the Sky with an affability that suggested The Flaming Lips or even Caribou; Benevento's new guest-heavy LP, the compelling TigerFace, winks at Fats Waller and Conrad Schnitzler, The Chemical Brothers and Oscar Peterson. That eclecticism has often made his music a stylistic outcast, relegated to the fringes of jam and jazz scenes and, most notably, indie rock.
"There are a lot of people that like jam bands that don't like my music because I don't jam in a way that's like The Grateful Dead or Phish," Benevento says, speaking from his home in Saugerties, N.Y. "The tone and color of my music is pretty rocking, so it's not jammy enough.
"But," he says, laughing, "some of the rockers will not like it because it's too jammy in spots—not rocking enough."
TigerFace doesn't concede to that confusion; rather, Benevento's 10 new tracks flaunt it. "Do What She Told You" hinges at first on boogie-woogie piano, vibrant flurries of notes prancing above stop-and-start drums; by song's end, though, the ivories have given ground to heavy organ, highlighting the tension between Benevento's earthly jazz and spacy rock dispositions. The record includes two telling versions of "This Is How It Goes." The first features guest vocals from the fair-voiced Kalmia Traver, creating a big-hooked pop song that could fit into the same college radio block as The Postal Service and Chairlift. Without vocals, its chorus-less counterpart spotlights the piece's remarkable dexterity, with harpsichord zigs running counter to organ zags over a rhythm section that can't be sated. Benevento makes complicated music dressed up, not down, by its patina of accessibility.
"I've heard so many different kinds of music along the way that I'm just writing and playing the music that I'm feeling like playing. It's way more than a rock or jam thing; there are a lot of things in there," Benevento says. His family left the city years ago so that he'd have not only more space for his two kids but also for the small army of instruments and amplifiers that such free musical movement requires.
Indeed, since the Duo released its last LP, Benevento has worked in multiple genres. He's collaborated with Phish frontman Trey Anastasio and with the prince of high-minded power-pop, Carl Newman of The New Pornographers. He has enough across-the-aisle experience to know that musicians relegated to one field generally romanticize the assets of the other, reckoning that the grass (or money) is always greener simply because they haven't seen it. Indie rockers, he says, envy the cash that they suppose jam bands make on the massive festival circuit, while players within the jam scene desire some of the cool credibility that comes with the indie rock crowd.
TigerFace reaches for both not only in sound but also in staff—Phish bassist Mike Gordon and Antibalas horn man Stuart Bogie play on the record, while marquee New York producer Bryce Goggin helmed some of it. Benevento even cuts squarely into the realm of indie rock royalty thanks to help from John McEntire. As the head of Soma Electronic Music Studios in Chicago, McEntire has worked with Bright Eyes and Blur, Smog and Stereolab. He's also one of three drummers in instrumental innovators Tortoise, not to mention his time in post-rock progenitors Gastr del Sol and Bastro. As much as anyone, McEntire is an active elder statesman of indie rock.
Years ago, while on tour, Benevento passed the time by chatting with a friend about possible collaborators for TigerFace; asking for McEntire's help back then almost seemed like a dare. After Benevento emailed him, he was in Chicago recording with McEntire in a matter of weeks. The result, appropriately named "Soma" for McEntire's studio, feels like a Brian Eno mirage, a booming bass drum pushing beneath a glowing, teeming microcosm of electronic life.
What's most telling about the track is that it perfectly fits within TigerFace; unless you're scanning along with the liner notes, you might miss McEntire's appearance entirely. That is, "Soma" doesn't feel like Benevento's attempt to ingratiate himself with the cool kids—it simply feels like a gorgeous track on a great record.
"I almost want to put together an instructional CD that shows people that there are a lot of similarities between Tortoise and the Benevento-Russo Duo, or between Pavement and some Brooklyn jam band I can't even name," Benevento says. "There is so much in common. It's a shame that people think that if a certain band falls into a category, they'll dismiss it."
This article appeared in print with the headline "Space station."