What a pleasant surprise this is. Though I was an early and avid supporter, I started to lose track of Ben Lee after becoming increasingly disappointed in his music as he matured from the 13 year-old that was introduced to the US by no less than Thurston Moore’s Ecstatic Peace label in 1993 with his primitive cheap keyboard drum machines and guitars and obvious gift of melody and clever turns of phrase and into a more studied and serious singer-songwriter. That early notice was largely driven by the 1994 underground hit “I Wish I Was Him,” (from the Young and Jaded EP on Grand Royal) a back-handed tribute to Evan Dando that would have been easy to write off as a novelty were it not so clever, tuneful, and charming.
Now, I don’t mean to begrudge him his craft, but as I was talking about with a friend over the weekend, the longer you keep at songwriting, the harder it seems to be to recapture the innocence and charm of your early attempts. You’ve done the three-chord pop, what’s next? This is often a good thing: “Tomorrow Never Knows” was a scant three or so years on from “Love Me Do,” after all. Not everyone agrees about such things of course: the Wilco of A Ghost Is Born is not the same band that people fell in love with on Being There (though I happen to love both). For me, Lee’s records started to lose that charm after he dropped the Noise Addict moniker and releasing albums under his own name. After 1995’s Grandpaw Would, they just started to get less interesting.
So, when alerted by a Merge press release that there was a new Noise Addict album – available NOW – and FREE – and LOU BARLOW is IN the band (along with Crooked Fingers’ Lara Meyerratken), I was skeptical that Lee could reach back and recapture that spirit. I’m glad to report that he largely has. According to the liner notes for it was never about the audience, there were arbitrary ground rules, key among them that the songs were written right before being quickly recorded in Lee’s bedroom, just like when he was a teen. That urgency leaves little time for over-crafting and it suits his pop instincts well.
Lyrically, it’s a throwback too. The first track, “That’s How It Goes” opens with the lines “bands make music/writers write about it/sometimes people like it/and sometimes they don’t” and later in “I Heart Your Band,” he mocks with “I heart your band/especially the early stuff.” Elsewhere he goes after “Chris Martin’s Frown,” so there may still be a lot of music fanboy still in Lee, but a wearier one.
I’m holding out hope that this experiment reinvigorates Lee’s songwriting, and it certainly will stir an examination of what I missed. Grab it –- it’s available now for free download here. -- Michael Piantigini