It seems like Ben Lee has been a wunderkind for so long, I wouldn’t be surprised to learn he has a few gray hairs by now. After all, the Australian singer-songwriter was in his early teens when he was first spotted as a member of the Sydney band Noise Addict. Despite the early recognition of his talent, though, Lee has had a hard time finding his artistic footing as he’s gotten older. Until his 2005 album Awake is the New Sleep, he was perhaps best known in America for his short-lived dalliance with actress Claire Danes.
Then came the Dell commercial. The Awake tune “Catch My Disease” appeared in a ubiquitous TV ad and the aging wunderkind seemed once again on the verge of success. For his follow-up, Lee has pulled out all the stops, enlisting the aid of producer John Alagia (John Mayer, Ben Folds Five, Dave Matthews Band) and special guests Mandy Moore, Heartbreaker Benmont Tench, Good Charlotte’s Benji Madden, Nickel Creek’s Sara Watkins, and members of Rooney.
Fortunately, in spite of some added slickness, Ripe song for song may be even better than Awake. Lee is still the same likable guy with the laid back delivery who once wrote a song called “I Wish I Was Him” about The Lemonheads’ Evan Dando. And his knack for pop hooks is sharper than ever. Whether he’s using power pop to espouse the attributes of “American Television” or ’50s doo wop to court Moore on their duet “Birds and Bees,” Lee is clearly in command of his talents here.
Not everything works as well. “What Would Jay Z Do?” sounds like Lee aping his pal Ben Folds, but it’s a one joke tune that nearly wears out its welcome. And I’m pretty sure the ’80s-style schlock-rocker “Sex Without Love” is tongue-in-cheek but you’d be forgiven for mistaking it for a lost Bon Jovi track.
Much better are sweet, giddy love and lust songs like “Is This How Love’s Supposed to Feel,” “Blush,” and “Hungry.” The CD’s penultimate track is even more open-hearted. “Love is a reason to exist / So let it all go and just say yes / If it feels right then why resist / Throw down your arms and just say yes,” Lee sings. And the acoustic ballad title track is a nice way to end the record. It’s all about the self satisfaction of boys and girls taking a chance and getting together.
There’s nothing too deep about Ben Lee. But age clearly becomes the Aussie wunderkind.
Ben Lee: www.ben-lee.com