Review: “The Family Tree” trilogy by Radical Face

We’ve all heard of the concept album, narratives or overall ideas conveyed through a series of song. Alice in Chains did it with Dirt. The Appleseed Cast did it with Low Level Owl I and II, and all but a few of the Pink Floyd albums fell into this category. Many bands have, at one time or another, tried to put together at least one. Some worked, some didn’t. That brings me to Ben Cooper of Radical Face.

For the past eight years, Ben placed himself at the helm of his work inside his family home in Jacksonville, Florida. What did he gain from his efforts inside his private studio? A production of not one but three albums linked together by stories of family — one family to be exact.

So, what is family? What is home? For most, they are a sense of something felt more than explained. We all, at some time or another, long for a return to our childhood and the warmth of a house filled with welcoming smiles and support. Those people and places are our bedrock, our foundation, our dreams, and often our ghosts. They molded us, gave us a base to stand on when the game got out of control. From there, they sent us out into the world so they might haunt us. I don’t know of any other artist that is able to put all these emotions into a four minute song better than Ben Cooper. He has a natural ease of conveying that detached drift of nostalgia over the course of his work.

The albums, spanning over the history of three generations, follow a group of downtrodden, blue-collar people with dark secrets and a history for violence. Ben’s series, collectively entitled The Family Tree, consists of The Roots (2011), The Branches (2013), and The Leaves (2016). In their entirety, the albums conjure up a feeling of the early 20th century, wrapping it inside a drum of mystical witch craft and folk lore. So, tread lightly my people. These songs harbor the bones of ghosts. They play to the truth of those things held closest to us, our inner fears and our inner demons.

Led by an acoustic guitar and accompanied by drums, piano, a creaking floorboard, and the occasional cello, Ben hums and sings his way through the family’s struggles with love, loss, war, murder, death, and longing. It sounds bleak, and maybe the whole damn thing should have been written in D minor. However, a lot of the songs are uplifting in a heartbreaking kind of way.

“Summer Skeletons” on The Branches explores the wonders of childhood and friendship that only seems to accompany us during those times in our lives. It’s a beautiful homage to children and the adventures that only childhood friends can find on an idle summer’s day. The song makes me recall a piece from a Stephen King story where the narrator says, “I never had any friends later on like the ones I had when I was twelve.” Ho, man. That’s some serious truth. But, I digress.

A song that touches the other side of the spectrum is “We All Go the Same” from The Branches . Here Ben covers the death of a character in his story. Set to a funeral march tempo and eerie soundscapes, the song explores all the regrets and misfortunes of those left to carry the weight of a new day. It’s an idea Ben seems to explore more than a few times throughout the course of the three albums.

The last and final song in the trilogy is “Bad Blood.” Here we see what some of us have faced in our lives. It’s the heartbreaking realization that some families are not meant to grow a tree. Their roots are rotten and the bad blood is just too thick to carry the weight of forgiveness. It’s a somber note to exit the work with, but fitting for the story as a whole.

So, what do you get from the hours of songs Ben’s laid out before you? Well, the ride is mostly downhill. Neither I nor he will try to paint a prettier picture. However, because of this fact, when the crests do come, they are mountains that harbor titans bearing gifts of jubilee. In my humble opinion, I’d say the journey is one that needs exploring and idle time to process before the grand enormity of life settles down around all of us that lie sleeping in our shoes. Rest easy oh mad one, for night is already upon us.

Click here to buy the records from Radical Face’s website.