CD: Learning To Bend
This is an interesting collection of tunes – one that requires your attention. Often when I receive music I drive around with it in the car for a while to see how it hits me and let it sink in a bit, and only then do I give it a more focused listen to see what else I can pull out of it that builds on those more primal first impressions.
I tried this with the debut full length by Ben Sollee, but “Learning To Bend” was incredibly stubborn in that respect. I knew that Ben was a respected and soulful cellist with a lot of monster players as friends (which in itself created positive associations for me, being a fan of Philly local cellist and singer-songwriter Alfred James, who I am hereby shouting out), and I was ready and psyched for this release.
But again, with the distractions of the road…and then again with the distractions at work (when I tried to listen there)…this album just kept saying “hey chump, I’ll be here when you’re ready to give me your full attention”, and left me at the end of each spin feeling like I just woke up from a dream that I wished I could remember but just couldn’t. Some might read that and say, “hmm, that doesn’t really sound like an endorsement”. Au contraire.
Finally, coming home from a Phillies game, I was on the wet and empty roads late at night without any distraction, and “Learning To Bend” revealed itself. I’ve been listening to a lot of Langhorne Slim lately, and Ben’s debut sounds like Langhorne’s older brother (though at 24, he’s almost 4 years his junior) – he’s got more jazz records in his collection, he’s a bit more introspective, and has discovered that quiet can, indeed, be the new loud. However, there’s a similar feeling of an unfussy, folk tradition in there somewhere…which is quite impressive for a guy with the classical training Ben has got under his belt.
The first thing that you’ll be hit with is Sollee’s amazing soulful voice – it’s somewhere between David Mead and Amos Lee for me (check it out in “How To See The Sun Rise”, over a bouncy undercurrent). It grounds some of the more spare arrangements, and is the undisputed focal point – again, a mature choice for someone who can rip it up on their instrument like he can. But like everything else here, the musicianship is there to discover for those who get off on that sort of thing, but is in no way jammed down the throats of those who don’t.
Standouts include “A Few Honest Words”, which is a sober and appropriate anthem for the upcoming election season that couldn’t be better timed. “Prettiest Tree On The Mountain” is a gorgeous duet, “Bend” is gentle like a music box, and “Bury Me With My Car” is a fun and poppy stomp. “Built For This” sounds like something soldiers would sing before going into battle about 200 years ago…and “A Change Is Gonna Come” is an update on the Sam Cooke classic with some of Ben’s own verses dropped in that are relevant again to the current political climate. I also have to mention that the closer “Copper and Malachite”, with its elegant string quartet, is a slow-burning dazzler.
This recording is not going to leap out of your stereo and grab you by the lapels…and then again, sometimes those that do quickly lose their luster. What it will do, is even more powerful – it will work its way into your heart with its sincerity, musicianship, and subtle yet powerful song craft. As of this week, its queued up and ready for dusky summer nights. Enjoy!