Tokyo-based writer and music scholar Michael Pronko's impressions of Roomful of Ghosts, from Jazz In Japan:
Downtown New York music maestro, Alabama-born and Tokyo-residing Samm Bennett’s latest CD is an intensely musical, freshly poetic and startlingly rich work. Melding a deep, resonant style of singing/narrating/moaning onto layers and layers of nimble percussion and vivid flowing sounds, Bennett has created a great CD that is a genre unto itself.
The sonic density of the tracks is built up from an outlandish array of objects, instruments and little things at hand. How many other CDs mix in face slaps and loose change? Yet, the density is a clear, fluid mix that grows, as you listen, into a fascinating orchestral array. You hear some kind of percussion here, a humming something above a resonating object over there, and then a melody-making something or other over there (is that a rubber ducky being squeezed?). In the middle of this, superbly played jaw’s harp hums and throbs. It’s surprising how well you can dance to a jaw’s harp! As diverse as it is, Bennett blends all this with such grace and subtlety that you realize, suddenly, that all the world is an instrument and in Bennett’s hands, one that rollicks and bounces you right along with it.
While the instruments tickle and twist your ears, Bennett’s voice rivets your attention. His singing rides atop the instrumental mix like a stagecoach driver, holding the reins of brawny reactions and subtle emotions. He sounds like the hidden narrator of some eerie dream stuck in your head on “Tingle Tangle Mingle Mangle,” then sings with the comfort of a friend’s voice at the resolution. He punches out the poetic stories with an engaging array of voices: a savvy traveling partner on “Used to Ride That Train,” an avant-garde bluesman on “Blues Wrapped Round My Head,” and a hip-swaying poet on “Boom Chicky Boom.” His voice, like any magical storyteller, compels you to listen.
And what you hear is not just the lyrics, but a re-molded universe of alternate stories, where monk bones stir coffee, backroom games win you a bucket of snails, wigs line up in strange formation and grandmothers don’t run from fights. He tells of hilarious characters and haunting incidents, wrapped up with astute observations. The songs never ‘poeticize,’ though, but speak in everyday voices. The elusive metaphors, strange collocations of objects and intense aliveness of the world pour forth. His songs let the carefully observed and the freely imagined collide in unique, gripping ways. You might feel uncertain where you are in his songs, but it doesn’t matter, because it’s always an amazing place.
That view of the world is not always a happy one, but it is one steeped in irony, awareness and honesty. The destructive frustrations in the ‘anti-song,’ “I Burned This Song” evolve into the terse truths of “Life.” The lyrics never simplify their meanings, but hold opposites together: angst and hilarity, confusion and insight, weirdness and the bland. Bennett knows just how to dip each song in symbolic spark, add a dose of existential resolve, and whip it all up into very funny stories, all the while kicking it with in-the-moment rhythmic delight.