Listen Up: Wednesday, April 20, 2005
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A D V E R T I S E M E N T
A D V E R T I S E M E N T
Ben Lee

Awake is the New Sleep (New West Records)

By Billy Walters

Does anyone really care about Ben Lee’s music? Plenty of hipsters drop his name when talking about neo-folkies and sensitive tunesmiths, but do people actually buy his records? Or is he just some Aussie kid who wormed his way into Hollywood’s inner circle through Claire Danes and scored a great publicist who, in turn, has convinced us that Ben Lee is someone we should pay attention to?
Awake is the New Sleep, Lee’s fifth solo album, thoroughly convinces us that, well, Mr. Lee scored one helluva publicist. The record isn’t horrible, but it’s definitely nothing that the otherwise stalwart New West Records should be hitching its wagon to — even if the label, home to greats like the Old 97’s, Dwight Yoakam, and the Drive-By Truckers, is catching the sensitive-skinny white guy bug and taking a chance on him.
One good thing you could say about Lee is that unlike many of his folkie peers, he isn’t afraid to be optimistic in song. While it’s easy to dismiss his wide-eyed wonder as hokey, nobody can say he isn’t sincere — you can sense his genuineness in his lyrics and plaintive sing-talking delivery, like in “Begin”: “I’m thinking about how I just want to open up and give and give and give.” The song, filled out by staccato acoustic down-strums and an electric drum loop, encompasses what Sleep strives to be, a groovy daisy-chain of caring in the face of apathy and terror. Straight from the horse’s mouth, “It’s OK for you to care.”
Most of the tracks, all slow-burning, promise a pay-off but don’t deliver, and after 14 of ‘em, you’re kind of worn out, but there are two or three gems buried within Sleep’s pink cloud. “Catch My Disease” may tempt you, no matter how cynical, to board Lee’s ship of love (thanks to a sweet glockenspiel riff), and the only sonic element missing from the delectably poppy “Into the Dark” is a “na-na-na” chorus.
Lee recorded Sleep in a home studio with friends, just like about a million other so-so singer-songwriters across the globe, except Lee’s friends have starred opposite Bill Murray and produced the Smashing Pumpkins, drummer/actor Jason Schwartzman and producer Brad Wood. The odor you smell? That’s likely the stink of gears being greased. — Billy Walters


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