- Ben Roque, Amuser
In a handwritten note accompanying his new album, Amuser, singer-songwriter Ben Roque explains its jovial title. Turns out it's not exactly a fun, playful reference. The word "amuser" refers to a specific kind of 19th-century British pickpocket. A pair of nefarious knaves would set up a two-person con: One would blow pepper or some other irritant into the eyes of an unsuspecting passerby, only to have their partner swoop in to feign assistance to the victim while quietly lifting valuables off their person.
Roque, a Burlington-based musician and author, seems to have an affinity for spooky so-and-sos in grave situations. The short stories in his 2018 ebook, The Midnight Cabaret, sound like source material for the next season of "The Twilight Zone." Much like the scoundrels populating the work of fellow Queen City project Matt the Gnat and the Gators, the Vermont native's characters are a dismal lot of dark-hearted creatures — a Roque's gallery, if you will.
Self-produced and engineered at home in his former city, San Diego, as well as in Burlington, Amuser is charmingly lo-fi, stylistically matching the scrappy stories contained within. Bluesy, piano-led jaunts teeter through minor-key ballads. Scathing hard-rock riffs underscore sotto voce murmurings. Around each of the album's corners lie bleak tales of woe.
"Little Amuser," the album's pseudo title track, recalls the grand, pleasing tone of Elliott Smith. Darkly descriptive, the tune paints a picture of haunted rose gardens, howling wolves and an endless desolate highway. "Little amuser's at the door," Roque croons at the hook's climax, a disquieting omen.
The record transitions into the piano slow jam "I Learned the Trick From Jekyll," one of the album's most stripped-down and emotionally raw tracks. Lyrically enigmatic, the song never describes exactly what the "trick" is. But anyone familiar with the Robert Louis Stevenson novella can infer that Roque sings of a schism of self, or perhaps the struggle of hiding inner darkness.
On "Autumn Brawler," a stinging, overdriven guitar jam, Roque balances instrumental fury with lightly barked vocals. A wriggling earworm of a riff recurs throughout.
"Skeleton Key," a dusty saloon ditty, closes his record with ghostly imagery: "She wore shadows like a dress / You keep asking, 'Have we met?'" The track dematerializes into a wispy nothingness.
Roque's greatest strengths lie in his lyrical ingenuity and imaginative world building. A strong compositional continuity binds the album together, all while its abhorrent inhabitants try to burn everything to the ground.
Amuser will be available on Tuesday, July 9, on all major streaming platforms.