AWAKE IS THE NEW SLEEP Ben Lee
As a gal with a tendency to hang around on the dark side, I hadn't been paying much attention to Ben Lee, based on what I'd heard about him. "Buoyant," "super-positive," "loving," and "spiritual" were all words I'd heard thrown around about the 26-year-old veteran (he started his solo career at 16). It didn't inspire confidence in a skeptical and slightly cranky heart like mine. But I'd never actually seen him play and never sat down with a record. That changed when I went to 3rd and Lindsley, a music club here in Nashville that hosts a live radio broadcast on Sunday nights, to see Lee's show. He's touring behind his latest release, Awake Is The New Sleep, and has been on the road solidly for the last five weeks and no end in sight.
The thing is, he was buoyant and loving and spiritual and, yes, even super-positive. Add "genuine" and "spontaneous" to that and you've got the first idea of what his show was like. His personality was so open and generous and his delivery of his songs so personal and authentic, it was impossible not to get caught up in the energy of his show. My friends and I dubbed him "The Golden Elf of Love." Before you turn away in disgust, there was the occasional dose of edge, if not outright darkness, to Ben Lee. While some songs, like his opener (also the opening track on his new CD), "Whatever It Is," are purely positive messages of encouragement, others, like "The Debt Collectors," speak to a more painful vision of love and life--although even that ends on a note of hope: "One day it'll be all right again."
Playing with him were his steady collaborator Lara Meyerratken on keyboards, Nick Johns on bass, Gawain Mathews on electric guitar, and Eric Gardner on drums. Everyone sang backup and everyone played shaker or tambourine at one point or another. These are all excellent players and there was the sense that if given a little more latitude, these musicians would burn. However, the night wasn't about burning, it was about Ben Lee.
Lee himself played acoustic guitar the whole night, and while this is no doubt pop music and pretty tightly arranged pop music at that, the combination of his sweet, simple guitar patterns and straightforward, slightly vulnerable voice suggested that this is a pop/rock artist with a folk soul. Some of the best moments came when the radio broadcast was over and the band played a few more songs with the pressure off. They became more relaxed and Lee himself became even more ebullient, if that's possible. With the radio portion over, he asked his band if they had anything they wanted to say. He leaned into the mic and said, "Well, I do. F--K!!!" The odd thing was, it didn't seem gratuitous or weird, just a gleeful release of steam. The audience loved it.
At the very end of the show, his band exited the stage to leave Lee to do a song solo. After a night of good sound, his guitar started cutting in and out. In the middle of singing "I'm Willing," he pulled out his cable, jumped out in front of the monitor and finished the song unamplified. A profound still fell over the crowd and Lee ended the night with a plaintive, humble and human moment: "I took both roads everywhere they went / Now something's gotta give / And I'm willing, I'm willing, I'm willing..."
If a live show is all about energy and delivery, a CD by necessity is more about the songs. Still, after seeing a live show, the songs on a CD are often hung with the memory of the live artist for me. Which, in Ben Lee's case, is a very good thing, indeed. It would be difficult to communicate a personality the proportion of Lee's on a disc. This, to my mind, is the main issue with Awake Is The New Sleep. Those who have never seen him play may be put off by what could seem at first listen a kind of repetitious, knee-jerk sunny quality. This album is worth spending some time with, however. Lee's approach becomes more a meditation in the listening, something that seems quite in line with his obvious spiritual bent.
There's a quiet, atmospheric quality to Awake, as it moves from the gentle, exhortation to "Just do it, just do it" of "Whatever It Is" to my favorite track, "Gamble Everything For Love," a kind of reggae stomp with a lilting, Kurt Weil-esque melody, and on to the poppier "Begin" and "Catch My Disease" (which has a kind of twisted Sesame Street, all-together-now feeling). Certain electronic sounds which were subtle on stage are right up front on the album, adding to the atmosphere, but occasionally being a bit distracting. I tended to like best the slightly less effected songs like "Apple Candy," a sly and sexy song about wanting another man's girlfriend.
Though this record is pop, it's quirky pop and not likely to be a radio favorite, which, given the state of pop radio, is a plus. Even at it's most rocking, Awake is a gentle record from a seemingly gentle soul and, in the end, even a cranky skeptic such as myself can be swayed by a soul like Lee's. I think that Awake Is The New Sleep, though not a perfect representation of the force that is Ben Lee, will stay with me. I'll be listening to it when I want to remember the great feeling I had from his live show, when I want to feel a sense of lovely space in my day and when I want to try to feel that connection that Ben Lee is communicating when he sings, "Woke up this morning / I suddenly realized / We're all in this together." Judith Edelman