The Family Tree: The Branches
The Branches is the second album in Ben Cooper's (aka Radical Face) trilogy - The Family Tree. A set of concept albums tracking a family tree (not dissimilar to hardcore band, Defeater's, first couple of LPs), this is as ambitious a project as any, not least because every Radical Face release so far has been close to impeccable. Can Ben Cooper keep up the quality? In short, yes.
The Branches is the kind of album you'll know whether you'll love or not within the first 3 minutes of listening. The intro track transitions into Holy Branches, the first full track, with a simple piano and guitar chord combo and Cooper's voice gently breaks into the album with the opening verse before wrapping up a more energetic chorus. At this point it's safe to say you can decide whether or not to ride out the next 40 minutes. This is not to say that the album is boring, monotonous, or never shifts pace, but rather that it's consistent. There's a certain feel and style that Cooper manages to never lose throughout the entirety of the album's playtime. Not a single song feels out of place, not a single chorus feels unusual. This is an accolade that I've seen even some of the most talented musicians struggle to achieve. The album knows where it stands and it stands there firmly.
I think, fortunately, that most people will choose to keep listening over that 3 minute mark too. The Branches is one of those albums which is easy to consume but takes a little work to truly digest. On it's surface, it's a pleasant ensemble of catchy indie-folk singalongs. The instrumentals wouldn't sound out of place in the stereotype of a Kickstarter product video, whilst Cooper's voice is gentle and unobtrusive and rarely demands your attention. But it's in your best interest to give it to him.
Under those easy-to-peel layers lies a real gem of an album, smarter and more beautifully composed than anything indie-folk has offered this year.
Every song has a powerful story behind it, whether it's the struggle to belong in Holy Branches, the inner monologue of an autistic boy in The Mute, or victims of 1900s child labour in the stunning The Gilded Hand. On occasion the narrative is given that extra push by added effects, such as the story of a chain-gang prisoner in Chains - a song which opens to the hum and clanking chains of prisoners. Give this album your attention and it will reward you.
For those who've already heard The Roots, the previous entry into The Family Tree trilogy, The Branches is ready for you to dive right in and enjoy. It will be familiar territory, but as mentioned, that's no bad thing when the territory is so divine. For those who are new to the trilogy, or indeed, new to Radical Face, then that's no problem either. This makes a great place to start listening. I have little doubt that the music and stories will sweep you up, and you'll be waiting in anticipation for The Family Tree's final offering as much as the rest of us. Let's hope Ben can keep it up.
Score: 4.3 / 5