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Music Review -- Ben Lee Breathing Tornados (Grand Royal/Capitol)
Up until now, Australian folk-rocker Ben Lee has been best known to most of America as that guy that's dating Claire Danes. But at the young age of 20, Lee is already a seasoned songwriter and performer. On his third solo album, Breathing Tornados, he eschews the spare boy-and-his-guitar vibe that were prevalent on his prior albums (as well as his work with now defunct band Noise Addict) and goes for the gusto with a more complex sound.
Recorded entirely on computers with mostly synthesized sounds, Breathing Tornados was helmed by producer Ed Buller, who had previously worked with the likes of Pulp, Suede and Spiritualized. While the album has a much larger sound than his first two albums, Grandpaw Would and Something to Remember Me By, Lee's snarky and often vulnerable songwriting hasn't changed. He's still an acid-tongued young upstart and this album comes off as half guitar rock and half 80's synth pop.
The opening track, "Cigarettes Will Kill You," is a wistful look back at an empty relationship disguised as a catchy pop song. Employing a multi-tack vocal mix that fleshes out Lee's voice, the song is laden with a hook that will stick in your brain for weeks to come.
Where the album fails is on tracks like "Nothing Much Happens" and "Nighttime," both co-written by that dog.'s Petra Haden, which get bogged down by the self importance of over-production to the point where the songs sound like the soundtrack to an 80's teen flick.
The strongest tracks on the album are the ones that are more focused on Lee as a songwriter than the production values of the album. "Burn To Shine" is a wrenchingly bleak song that builds from the simplicity of Lee's voice and guitar into a lush arrangement without losing focus of the lyrics. "Ship My Body Home," which would be the logical choice for a second single, has Lee plaintively singing All I ever wanted was/To finish what I started/So ship my body home over a building track of heavy guitars and synthesized effects that do nothing to diminish the melancholy of the lyrics.
Aside from Petra Haden, producer Buller also gets a co-writing credit on the album for "Sandpaperback," which opens with the voice of an opera diva and includes Grand Royal labelmate Sean Lennon on backing vocals. Also appearing as an unlikely collaborator is Kids screenwriter Harmony Korine on "Tornados," one of the stronger tracks on the album.
When laid bare, it's clear that Lee's song writing can stand on its own, without synthesizers, multi-tracking, overdubs or breakbeats. But when all those elements are combined in just the right way, the results show us an artist who is maturing in a very interesting direction and only shows more promise for his future work.
Ben Lee can be seen supporting singer/songwriter Rufus Wainwright on his current tour. Check http://www.grandroyal.com for tour dates.