When I first heard Ben Lee’s new album, I thought “damn, I would have played the hell out of this album when I was about 15.” On Breathing Tornados , Lee evokes the ghost (in you) of a lot of the music I loved in the mid-’80s, especially the Psychedelic Furs. At first I thought it was sheer nostalgia for those days that kept me slipping the disc back into the CD player. It’s produced by ex-Fur Ed Buller, which may be why “Nothing Much Happens” wouldn’t have sounded out of place on the soundtrack to Pretty In Pink , but Lee’s voice sounds eerily like Richard Butler’s on several tracks, especially on “Tornados” (the most Psych Furs-like tune on the album, with a tasty “Heartbreak Beat” sax and “Love My Way” vibraphone). Other tracks reflect other ’80s favorites — for example, “Ship My Body Home” is equal parts Joy Division and Jesus & Mary Chain — but it was the Psych Furs feel that kept me coming back.
A funny thing happened, though. The more I listened, the more I started to notice completely different elements. Like “Nighttime,” which doesn’t fit that ’80s mode at all; rather, it reminds me of the Propellerheads’ “History Repeating” — not in sound, but in feeling — with big horns that could have come right out of Shirley Bassey’s “Goldfinger” and a “Peter Gunn” bassline against clever string loops. Or the pretty acoustic ballads “Sleepwalking” and “Birthday Song.” Or “Sunflower,” which could have been a lost Portishead track. Before I knew it, I was playing the hell out of the album — and not out of misplaced nostalgia!
I can now easily say that Breathing Tornados is one of my favorite records of the year so far. While it may have been the middle-school kid in me that demanded giving the disc repeated spins, it’s the adult that fell in love with a mature, diverse, accomplished album. Ben Lee is someone I’ll definitely be watching!
Grand Royal Records, P.O. Box 26689, Los Angeles, CA 90026; http://www.grandroyal.com