January 13, 2004

The Bens: the ultimate test of shag, marry, or push off a cliff

What happens when a classically trained Southern piano player, a power-pop-playing Texan, and an acoustic guitar-toting Australian collaborate on an album? Approximately 15 minutes of pure listening enjoyment provided by none other than Ben Folds, Ben Kweller, and Ben Lee. Featuring only four songs, the EP may not last a car ride to the city, but the volume of musical talent and the span of genres will certainly provide some serious ear candy while it lasts.

The first track, "Just Pretend," contains a folky mix of acoustic guitar and buoyant piano accents. The vocal harmonies produced by the trio won't shake the foundations of CSN, but suit the relaxed vibe. Specific elements—like the rotation of verses from Kweller to Lee to Folds—give the song the perfect playful edge.

And playfulness can be said to be the Bens' common denominator. Their discographies are characterized by lightheartedness and humor that often come across as quirkiness. Obviously, the tracks on their albums offer more diversity than can be presented here, but overall, their musical tones are very similar. So, when electronic pop is thrown onto the EP, like on "Xfire," it works in a goofy, non-serious way. In this song, quirkiness is no doubt an advantage when attempting to pull off robotic voices and overly dramatic choruses. That isn't to say that the extreme catchiness of the rhythm or Lee's voice don't help, too.

The third track, the Kweller-led "Stop," changes tempo three times within the first minute and a half. The intro consists of a drum machine backing Kweller's stripped vocals. Enter scratchy electric guitar. Stop. Repeat. Stop. Cut to the tempo that catches the listener off guard when it speeds up incredibly. Next, hear Kweller's voice over the choppy guitar chords ever so slightly resemble Rivers Cuomo's in his earlier days. Finish. It's nicely done, but for a four-song EP, one might expect something less predictable. What really matters is the next song anyway.

"Bruised" combines Folds's proclivity for tickling lively yet poignant piano melodies and Lee's competent and reflective string plucking, and was therefore destined to be the best song on the EP. Lee's acoustic opening pulls the listener in with its melancholic, clean chords. The semi-cheerful, semi-reflective melody develops into the perfect backbone for lyrics that speak of infidelity. However, the cadence of Folds's voice, which conveys a mixture of disillusionment and detachment, truly carries the song. The sobering first lines of, "I know/love just leaves you bruised/if you want to know/you'll find something to lose," up to the crescendo where Folds literally ba-ba-ba-bas his heart out illustrate the song's rhythmic and emotional fluency. During the middle of the song, when the slow accompaniment of Lee's guitar dies down and Folds's piano concentrates on higher octaves, something happens. It grows from good to great, from "the best of the EP" to "one of the best of either Folds's or Lee's solo careers." Perhaps not so succinctly, the point is made. And yes, this is the song they played in Mandel together.

It seems nearly impossible that an EP featuring three of the greatest solo musical acts around would do anything less than impress. While there may be no guarantee that anything else can be expected from this trio in the future, this EP should be enough to appease the masses for a while. Just stick "Bruised" on repeat and that should last at least a couple trips to Chinatown.

The Bens EP can be downloaded off of iTunes or ordered online through ""