Last Smoke Before the Snowstorm – Benjamin Francis Leftwich (2011)

Benjamin Francis Leftwich

Album artwork for Last Smoke Before the Snowstorm

Last Smoke Before the Snowstorm is just one of those records that makes you feel better almost immediately after pressing play. The soft, fingerpicked patterns on the acoustic guitar accompanying a dreamy male voice; it’s the classic combination for any typical singer-songwriter.  Something sets Benjamin Francis Leftwich apart from the crowd, though.  Maybe it’s the chorus effects on his voice, or the string arrangements overlaid on top of the guitar chords, or maybe it’s the artistically autobiographical nature of the lyrics.  I think the main point is that this album has a clear sense of authenticity to it.  Each song is a complete transference of Leftwich’s ideals and creative vision.  It’s remarkably intimate as well, and makes it easy to feel as if you are an audience of one, listening to a private music session.

For years, I could never bring myself to give much attention to the typical singer-songwriter. After all, what do they really do other than pluck a few chords on the guitar and write songs about love?  I’ve had a recent change in perspective, though.  While it may not be the most complex or musically innovative sound, it’s rich in emotional content.  What is music, if not the purest form of expressing oneself?  The act of taking the tangled mass of thoughts in your head, deciphering them, and channeling them through your own personal form of artistic expression…it’s an amazing thing.  If you’ve ever tried to write a song in the past, then you know how deceptively challenging it is.

Even so, there’s an innumerable amount of songwriters across the globe who all follow this same path.  Leftwich is just a single string woven into an endless web of indie rock crooners. There was some invisible force that caused me to pause for a moment on his music, refraining from skipping to the next artist.  From the first note of Last Smoke Before the Snowstorm, he is able to transfix the listener, holding their full attention while telling them stories of his life. The lyrics convey a sense of past experiences through the unique filter of Leftwich’s perspective, with the words dancing around each other to form soft, delicate melodies in your ear.

But there’s another, less obvious sense through which he tells these stories – the instrumental parts of the music itself.  It turns out that Benjamin Francis Leftwich is much more than just a few well-placed guitar chords.  There’s a strong sense of atmosphere that permeates the whole record.  It becomes much more than just a collection of songs in your earbuds.  The listener is transported to a much more intimate setting, one that is different for each person.  I find myself sitting on the old wooden porch of a cabin in the woods, solemnly watching the sun slowly set as a sheet of snow begins to lightly cover the silent earth.  For you, it may be something completely different.

This is where the power of Leftwich’s music truly shines.  It causes you to step out of your own life for a brief period and enter a haunting environment of soft ballads and rich emotions.  There’s a diverse collection of sounds on Last Smoke.  Strings, soft female backing vocals, reverberant percussion, slide electric guitar riffs, and low ethereal pads all enrich the layered soundscape.  Each one of these sounds adds its own mark to the music, and works as another building block in the unique vision of this album.

With his melodies still bouncing around in my head, Leftwich has left his mark.  Starting out my morning with this album was perhaps the best way I could have chosen to begin the day. Last Smoke Before the Snowstorm is not just another alternative singer-songwriter record; it’s the deeply personal chronicles of a man’s perception of the world, preserved for the rest of us to hear.

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