After years of chopping wood to keep his house warm, Ben Weaver has left the ax in the oak. It’s a statement of confidence as well as an artistic metaphor for Weaver, whose sixth studio album, The Ax in the Oak, is his most realized and mature work to date—the culmination of personal and musical growth for the 29 year old, and his time to enjoy the fire he’s stoked.
For the recording of The Ax in the Oak, Weaver traveled from the Twin Cities where he is based, to Chicago’s Engine Studios where he teamed up again with Brian Deck (Iron and Wine, Modest Mouse), the producer with whom he worked with on his 2007 release Paper Sky. Drawn together by mutual friends and a love for the shimmering, electronic pop of Austrian-based musician Christian Fennesz, Weaver and Deck made a conscious effort to take a more experimental approach to create the mise en scene for Weaver’s songs; Weaver came into the studio with only half of the basic melodies and chord structures written for each song, and the duo took turns going in and out of the live room working on each others’ previous idea.
Apropos to Deck’s work with Califone, the result is an organic album with electronic elements, thoughtfully complimenting Weaver’s earth-honest and indelicate delivery, while also not completely neglecting his folk-roots. It also yielded Weaver’s first instrumental composition (“Said in the Stones”). Joining Weaver and Deck in the studio were cellist Julia Kent (Antony and The Johnsons), vocalist Erica Froman (Anathallo), and some of Ben’s friends: Will Duncan (drums), Blake Sloan (bass), and Steve Reidell (bass, Hood Internet). Ax was recorded in Chicago, but the writing took place in Berlin, where Weaver bunked in a 4th floor courtyard apartment for several weeks during July 2007. Weaver’s approach to songwriting is not your typical verse-chorus-verse arrangements, but rather little song-stories about birds, phone booths, empty parking lots, strangers in the checkout line, plastic bags stuck in trees and other things that may go unnoticed in life’s overstuffed Wunderkammer. Weaver’s mood is double-edged; darkness and melancholy always live in close proximity to a romantically hopeful and redeeming view of the human condition. His songwriting took critic’s notice on his selfreleased 2004 album, Stories Under Nails, with accolades collected both in the US and abroad in The New York Times, CBS Sunday Morning, Harp, Mojo, and Q Magazine.
As a friend of the late Southern writer Larry Brown—who called Weaver “the most exciting young songwriter I’ve come across” —Weaver penned two songs in tribute to him on Ax: “Hey Ray” and “Hawks and Crows.” Weaver also contributed a song to the Bloodshot Records compilation: Just One More: A Musical Tribute to Larry Brown, released last year.
Weaver returned to Berlin after the recording of the album—to the same apartment—to draw all the artwork for The Ax in the Oak. But it’s not the first time Weaver’s explored the 2-dimensional side to his art: His limited-edition, hand-printed chapbook of poems and drawings, “Hand Me Downs Can Be Haunted,” sold out the first two printings and is now in its third. Weaver has also contributed a story to an upcoming Anthology being gathered by Steve Horowitz for Mellville House—each selection of fiction is written by a songwriter. Expected to be in bookstores in March 2009, Weaver will be featured along with the likes of Renee Sparks of The Handsome Family, Greg Brown and Jolie Holland.