Constant Smiles

Paragons

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Paragons Review

by Fred Thomas

Since the end of the 2000s, songwriter/producer/multi-instrumentalist Ben Jones has used the Constant Smiles moniker for the recordings he's made with an ever-changing collective of friends and affiliates. Early output from the project took the form of anything from abstract noise to icy synth pop, settling into a hazy amalgam of bedroom production, Krautrock repetition, and downcast songwriting over the course of frequently released digital-only albums. Hints of melancholy jangle eventually began peeking out from behind the clouds of reverb, with the songwriting taking on a new level of clarity on 2020 album Control. With Paragons, Jones and his collective push Constant Smiles in the opposite direction of the intentional obscurity of earlier phases. The vocals are up front and melodic on tracks like "Run to Stay," cutting the reverb usage considerably to reveal a captivating song that sounds somewhere between Desire-era Dylan and the first Beach Fossils album. The acoustic guitars, gentle Mellotron flourishes, and violin and cello accents on "The Things I Miss" are also worlds more immediate and straightforward than much of what bore the Constant Smiles name before Paragons. The song is dour but gentle, bearing similarities to the soft sadness of New Zealand bands like The Verlaines and also slightly reminiscent of different generations of singer/songwriters -- Chris Bell, Al Stewart, Emmit Rhodes, Jeff Eubank -- who were wildly talented but a little bit too strange or emotionally raw for across-the-board mainstream success. Much of Paragons is hushed and understated, but Jones' experimental background surfaces sometimes, as when synth lines gurgle up amid the twilight guitar tones or depressive lyrics cut through the lush instrumentation. The Krautrock pulse that drove rugged tracks on earlier Constant Smiles albums is still alive on "Please Don't Be Late" but sounds more like Yo La Tengo than Brainticket. Even with some threads to earlier work still intact, this is a completely different band than even the one that delivered Jones' songs as brooding synth pop just two years earlier on John Waters. The songwriting personality that was buried under exorbitant amounts of delay on earlier albums not only comes through more vividly on Paragons but also comes 15 years into the evolution of the project, at a time when Jones is writing some of his best songs. "Daisy Table for Three" is one of them: a sadly beautiful ballad that would stand on its own in any form but sounds perfect with the spare and aching acoustic arrangement presented here. Paragons feels much more like a debut than an additional chapter from a band over a decade into a dense and varied discography. It stands apart from much of what preceded it, however, taking Constant Smiles to new and unexpectedly powerful places by simply lifting the veil on Jones' gift for songwriting.

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