Profoundly mundane

Ben Varian excavates elements of life that other people ignore

By Rev. Adam McKinney on April 6, 2017

When the Talking Heads decided to title their second full-length album More Songs About Buildings and Food, there's no question that they were making a self-deprecating joke about the oddly impersonal nature of their songs. I think if you talked to David Byrne, though, he'd say that there's nothing more personal than exploring the boring, everyday things that are universally shared. Byrne delighted in exploring the profundity of mundanity; in his singularly odd film, True Stories, Byrne delivers strangely compelling monologues about the beauty of malls, corporate synergy, and prefab warehouses. Stop Making Sense saw the Talking Heads performing in front of a seemingly random collection of projected words, including "onions," "public library," "videogame," and "air conditioned."

I sense a kindred spirit of Byrne's in Olympia singer-songwriter Ben Varian, as presented on his recent album, Quiet Fill. Aside from occasional Afro-pop flourishes, there's not much in the way of similarities between them, music-wise, but they both share a love of digging down into normality and exposing the weirdness that makes up things we interact with on a daily basis. Sometimes, these are joyful discoveries, ticklish little exposés of objects and experiences that largely go unnoticed. Other times, excavating the elements of life comes with a bit of anxiety - "How To Make Coffee" devolves into a frenzied list of everything of Varian's that's worth money, including his time, his plasma, his keyboard and his microphone. The song's structure allows for no time to rest, pushed forward by bleary guitars, reflecting the nonstop rush to account for all the money that so easily slips away.

Quiet Fill opens with a duo of complementary songs: "Bread" and "Butter," both of which are titles that you could reasonably convince someone were the work of the Talking Heads. They establish Varian's penchant for a kind of mellow progressive rock, packed with unusual time signatures and nontraditional instrumentation, sort of in the tradition of the Dirty Projectors. Later in the album, the titles get more abstract ("Cut the Lake in Half," "Good Morning From the Floor of the Whole Earth, Called the Ground"), resembling bands like the Flaming Lips and Modest Mouse's tendency to reassess the natural world with a sense of wide-eyed wonder.

Much of Varian's output is solo, but when he performs with a live band, it's under the moniker of the Ben Varian Approach. Varian's itch to experiment and produce bedroom oddities doesn't always allow for a collaborative process, though, as seen on this bird got a peanut - a collection of 27 brief, lo-fi approximations of classical music. Varian calls these "baby symphonies," and they're tossed-off, jaunty ditties that were very quickly recorded to four-track after drives in the car listening to the classical station. Deprived of Varian's usual verbosity (the album even eschews titles, with each song simply assigned a number), it's an album that finds purity in cutting the most direct path from the musician's mind to the listener's ears.

"Everything Rhymes," the title of Quiet Fills' closing track, may come as close as we can get to Varian's functional ethos - this is an artist who is interested in finding the musical potential in everything that people are used to ignoring. You might not think to write a song about butter, for instance, but the truth of butter is that it's life transformed and repurposed, a fact that's not lost on someone like Varian.

The opening line of "Everything Rhymes" goes, "I want to say two things at once." This yearning for universal language and unfettered access to expression gets to the heart of what Ben Varian explores in all of his sublimely peculiar ways.

The Ben Varian Approach, w/ Liquid Letters, Teton, Extended Skin Contact, 9 p.m., Sunday, April 9, $7, Obsidian, 414 4th Ave. E., Olympia, 360.890.4425,