Sunday, February 01, 2004

24. The Bens - self-titled EP (2004)

What's with singer-songwriters and forming super-groups these days? Right on the heels of The Thorns come The Bens. Who knows how or why The Thorns got together, but Ben Lee, Ben Kweller, and Ben Folds seem to think having the same first name is reason enough to form a band.

Seriously, the conundrum when three songwriters get together is: Can they really make music collaboratively after working solo, and if they can, are the results better than the solo work would have been, or are the songs compromised?

The Thorns showed this to be a limitation; though all their songs were credited to the band, it was quite obvious who wrote what. I Can't Remember sounded like a Matthew Sweet song and would have worked on one of his albums. Runaway Feeling sounded like a Pete Droge song and could have been on one of his albums.

At first The Bens really seem to make an attempt to avoid that. On the first of the four songs, Just Pretend, the boys take turns on lead vocals. They also harmonize on the chorus, much like The Thorns.

The second song, XFire, stretches the equality, but without the Crosby, Stills, & Nash vibe. Kweller and Lee share lead vocals, but it sounds like a loose Cars tune, complete with synthesizer and robotic voices. It's quite catchy.

But just when The Bens really seem to be whipping up the community spirit, we come to the final two songs. Stop! features only one vocalist (could be Lee or Kweller...I'll be damned if I can tell their voices apart), and could be a Velvet Underground track. Though it's not bad, it features little evidence that three talented songwriters participated in its creation.

Bruised, on the other hand, is wonderful. It sounds like an instant classic, and evokes everything that was good about Christopher Cross. It has sensitive lyrics, virtuoso piano playing and great harmony vocals. But only the guitar part gives any clue that it's something more than a Ben Folds solo piece.

I guess that leads us back to my opening question. If it's so difficult to work together, why even bother forming the group? In the case of The Thorns and The Bens, it certainly doesn't seem like a commercial decision. I guess I shouldn't complain; I'm happy to have more Ben Folds songs in the world. But a new solo album would have served the same purpose.

So here's your answer. (And I haven't just been setting up straw men to knock down; I've come to this conclusion as I've been writing). If you look through your Rock History books, you'll quickly find that nearly every great band has had more than one talented songwriter. It's practically a formula for quality. Should I be harsher on this band (or The Thorns) just because they were all solo before? No.

So really, my only complaints are these: 1) It would be nice if they picked a style (and Just Pretend is a good place to start) and 2) They need to put out more songs.

I guess I could have just written that in the first place and saved the trouble!

Rating: B
Fave Song: Bruised


Here are some other lads that might consider getting a group together:

The Davids
David Bowie (lead vocals), Davy Jones (from The Monkees, tambourine, backup vocals), David & David (guitar, bass, backup vocals) and David Robinson (from The Cars, drums)

The Pauls
Paul Simon (vocals, lead guitar), Paul McCartney (vocals, bass), Paul Carrack (vocals, keyboards), Paul Stanley (from Kiss, rhythm guitar) and Prince Paul (drum machine and sampling)

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