by A.J. Duric
From opening for Sonic Youth and Pavement in his days with his former band, Noise Addict, to Breathing Tornados, the follow-up to his critically acclaimed 1997 solo debut, Something to Remember Me By, its clear that Ben Lee is well along the road to strengthening his enviably complex, acoustically driven songwriting skills. In fact, he makes lyrical snippets of daily life melodically linger enough to conjure comparisons to the works of luminaries such as John Lennon and Bob Dylan.
Breathing Tornados is eclectic and decidedly experimental, in opposition to the perception of Lee which too often finds him lumped into the singer-with-a-guitar autobiographical genre. "Nighttime" is groovy, with heavily echoed or reverbed vocals and trumpet tweets playing a game of tag with whistle sounds as we move from verse to chorus. "Cigarettes Will Kill You" slides surprisingly away from a persistently intermittent piano to a breakbeat-vocal pause.
More lush than Lees previous work, Breathing Tornados has been touched by the hand of Spiritualized producer Ed Buller, who assisted Lee in recording the album (done entirely on computers) using mostly synthesized sounds and sampled beats, thus delivering a quirky, yet oddly warm pop album. Selective collaboration demonstrates Lees willingness to expand his horizons "Tornados" was co-written by Kids screenwriter Harmony Korine; "Nothing Much Happens" and "Nighttime" were co-written by That Dogs Petra Hayden; and other guest artists include Donovan Leitch and Grand Royal labelmate Sean Lennon.
The only problem with computerized music is that more effort is required on the part of the artist to break beyond the sonically obvious, programmable beats and sounds. The beats begin to lag and the songs struggle to retain repeated interest. Lees evident songwriting strength and obvious will to experiment with samples as in "Sandpaperback" and "I am a Sunflower" diminishes this quandary. If Breathing Tornados gold sales in Australia and a very radio-friendly, summery sound are any indication, Ben Lee should have no problem finally breaking into American pop consciousness.