Posted by: Dominic Umile | 03/01/2009

New Stuff: Missing Palmer West

Missing Palmer West's Ben Smith

My brother and some of my closest friends play in a Philadelphia-area band called Missing Palmer West. Their self-released EP, Shoveling Smoke, is an early 2009 gem in this considerably biased writer’s opinion.

Shoveling Smoke is loaded with shimmering chamber pop charm — the arrangements are the kind that sound like they took hours to properly formulate, right down to the sparse servings of organ or minimal and clean 60s-nicking guitar tones. Tranquil cello countermelodies chase main songwriter Ben Smith’s piano lines through these eight tracks, and no painstakingly crafted lyric goes unnoticed. Smith expresses a great deal of sympathy for “people who don’t drink” in the slow-burning title track, and his barroom, border-crossing singalong “Coast Is Clear” has roots that go much farther back than November 2008 (“before,” as he explained recently onstage, “we won everything”). His evenly weighted nods to both Washington leadership and major league baseball stem from a feeling of powerlessness that presumably has as much to do with Dick Cheney as it does with the conclusion of the Philadelphia Phillies season in 1993.

My favorite Shoveling Smoke track is “Water Follows the Moon.” It’s a largely bare waltz, because when lyrics are grounded in a lunar/lover analogy, they shouldn’t be obscured by instrumentation. The verses are bookended by the full-band treatment, but when everything slinks away, it’s just Smith’s skyward-gazing narrative padded by subtle but lovely orchestration.

The moon is trapped by the earth
it can’t escape how it needs it, and defines its worth
the speed makes it dizzy, it’s hard to concentrate
so it just goes through the phases instead

“I never much liked science class, but I’ve got great interest for a topic if I can personify the major elements involved,” Smith says of his original concept for ‘Water.'” The main idea for the song materialized during a conversation he had with his wife.

“Jess and I were sitting on the beach, and I wanted to understand the tides,” says Smith. “I knew it was something that was affected by the moon, but I didn’t really know how. So I asked her, and she had the answer. I don’t remember what the answer is — I’ve even heard it explained in other contexts since — what I do remember is suddenly imagining them [the water and the moon] as characters in a relationship, dependent on one another but separate. Jess said the phrase, ‘The water follows the moon’ — and after that, I lose track of the actual scientific details. It happens all the time.”

Fittingly, “Water Follows the Moon” rumbles in the manner that the sea does — its perpetual storm at the center of the pre-chorus spills over with piano chords, crash cymbals, and a reverent string arrangement — only to retreat to a somber, solemn pace during Smith’s verses. The subdued, Gillian Welch-esque vocal harmony was contributed by Eliza Jones, a singer/pianist in another wonderful Philly band called Buried Beds.

“I imagined ‘Water Follows’ as a duet, sort of like one of us is the water and the other is the moon, but that’s not how it turned out,” explains Smith. “It’s not written that way anyway. I still long to write a great duet.”

The video linked below is for an epic Shoveling Smoke entry called “God Knows I’m No Saint Paul.” It’s a stop-animation film, Gumby-style, that was created solely by Smith and his wife. You can also download “God Knows I’m No Saint Paul” for free below.



  1. hey man. great post about MPW. keep up this writing, and you’ll soon have that life in directing that you’ve always longed for.

  2. thanks, that’s always been a secret passion.

  3. Dom tell us more about your “secret passions”. Nice write up. I look forward to hearing the album.

  4. Thanks a lot for reading; I really appreciate it. And no. No more discussions of secret passions here.

  5. Great band. Great write up. Gotta get them in DC.

  6. 2:33!?!? Where am I, Saturn? Your time counts jacked.

  7. You’re a good man, C.H. And yes, I have no idea how to adjust the time zone on here. Someday, I will master all of the internet. Who will be laughing then, man? Me. Thanks a lot for reading.

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