The Bens

The Bens

Self-published, 2003

REVIEW BY: Jason Warburg


I was going to wax philosophic here about the nature of supergroups, but really, who gives? You know the scene, from the highs (Crosby Stills & Nash, Traveling Wilburys) to the lows (Bad English, The Firm). The point is, this EP -- a four-song collaboration among singer-songwriters Ben Folds, Ben Lee and Ben Kweller -- is just about as cool as cool can be.

The blending of Folds' witty melodicism with Kweller's unvarnished whimsy and Lee's electro-dance-pop makes for inspired fun. The common elements among this trio might be hard to spot at first. Sure, Lee hails from Australia and Folds moved there a few years ago, and Kweller and Lee both bore the boy-genius label/burden, complete with hit records and high expectations in their mid-teens. But Folds is quite a bit older than the other two, and the three have substantially different styles.my_heart_sings_the_harmony_web_ad_alt_250

The common elements are innocence and vulnerability, emotional tones that come through clearly on the opener "Just Pretend," with its CSN acoustic guitar-and-rich-harmonies arrangement. Just for a moment I flashed on The Thorns, that other contemporary singer-songwriter collective, but then along came "Xfire" (pronounced "crossfire"), a Lee-styled electronic confection full of trippy beats, processed vocals and ridiculous catchy riffs.

Kweller takes his turn in the driver's seat with the ragged, giddy "Stop!" whose chunky guitars and shifting rhythms amplify his natural exuberance. On both "Stop!" and "Xfire" Folds appears to be having a blast orchestrating the controlled chaos from behind the drum kit, wailing away Keith Moon-style.

Back behind his piano, Folds takes his moment in the spotlight on the closing "Bruised," a great illustration of how his lyrical solo work might sound with guitars in the mix. (Answer -- excellent, albeit not as unique.) It's a typically masterful melding of melody, acid wit and heartbreak -- one of his best, and not to be missed for any Folds fan.

Time after time, the "other two" Bens complement the "lead Ben" beautifully, lending texture and freshness to each of these tracks. You can feel the trio feeding off one another's enthusiasm and creativity; these tracks are bursting with energy and invention, and seem at times to combine the best elements of each of these three considerable talents. They are, in other words, what a supergroup is designed to be, i.e. greater than the sum of its parts.

Given the three Bens' busy schedules, it seems likely this EP will turn out to have been a glorious one-off. Rather than dreaming of a second round, my advice is to simply enjoy this special musical moment, whether or not it ever comes around again.

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Rating: A-

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