We've been keeping an eye on the latest studio album from Aussie singer-songwriter Ben Lee for a while now. For me, I've been listening to Lee since my college days, when I stumbled upon his criminally overlooked album Breathing Tornados. It has been nearly a decade since I heard "Cigarettes Will Kill You" and "Nothing Much Happens," and to this day they still put a smile on my face whenever those particular tracks pop up on my iTunes. Quality pop music with substance isn't easy to find, yet Ben Lee has been able to consistently crank out solid music over the course of his twelve plus year career.
For his latest long player, Ripe, he enlisted the help of several of his friends while in the studio. Since my advance copy of the CD doesn't list who appears on which tracks, what I do know is that Benji Madden (Good Charlotte), Benmont Tench (Tom Petty), Rachael Yamagata, members of Rooney, Sara Watkins (Nickel Creek) and Charlotte Martin all helped out on various tracks. It was a big happy family in the studio, and that vibe definitely affected the tape, as the album comes across as warm and inviting.
Narrowing his potential pool of songs down from eighty to a total of twelve, the album is quite cohesive and is a strong body of work. It begins with "Love Me Like The World Is Ending," a radio-friendly pop track with female backing vocals that gives this a catchy hook. While it is totally accessible, and I could easily hear this rocking from a soccer mom's minivan (do they still drive minivans or have they switched to sports wagons?), Lee's strong songwriting keeps the song just fine for indie kids as well.
"American Television" has the vibe of a sunny California toe tapper in the vein of Rooney with a hint of Idlewild. It turns out that the Rooney reference makes sense, as Lee had a cameo in the band's latest video. Go figure. You'll easily find yourself singing along to the "ooh ooh ooh" parts.
Another radio track could be "Is This How Love's Supposed To Feel," which I can hear as the break out song from a movie soundtrack. It is mid-tempo, built around plenty of piano. It feels pretty mainstream, but when you finally reach the climactic peak of the track once the chorus hits in, it is pretty hard to resist. This is one well-crafted track, and one of the best I've heard from Lee in a while.
Other highlights include the amusing "What Would Jay-Z Do," the sing-along "Sex Without Love" and the country-tinged "Hungry." All in all, Ben Lee's latest is chock full of mature music that does lean towards the adult alternative genre quite a bit, although there is nothing wrong with that in the slightest. Ripe was a pleasant surprise, and could possibly give him the long-overdue break he deserves here in the States.