[29 February 2008]
One of my many borderline Obsessive Compulsive tendencies, I follow a certain golden rule for record reviewing: before even touching the pen (err, keyboard), I allow at least one full headphones listen. Because really, from the Olivia Tremor Control’s masterstroke Black Foliage: Animation Music to Sgt. Pepper’s, some music simply begs for the up-close treatment in beautiful stereo. And quite simply, I didn’t realize how well-produced and dense Benny… At Home is until I gave it the intimacy of headphones. Incredibly enough, the still-obscure Dutch pop artist wrote, performed, and produced the whole affair.
“Coconut” is a fabulous first track; it opens with an indisputably funky, warbling mess of synth sounds, live piano, subtle guitar and horn flourishes, hand claps, and some guy yelling in the distant background. The whirring sound effects continue to float in and out, along with a lazy beat and Benny’s fey vocals (listen for his monkey-like gibberish at the 3:16 mark!). The song is a foreshadowing of what is to come: a successful marriage of Benny’s love of innovative beat-driven production with his knack for pop melody.
“Coconut”, like most of Benny… At Home, has a distinctly electronic backbeat, yet sounds totally raw and homemade, with an almost ramshackle charm. It sounds like any noise-making object in sight got thrown into the mix, liable to collapse any second. The album’s colorful array of textures includes record scratching (“Overnight”), bongo drums, and saxophone (both from “Let Me In”); this all adds up to a constant basis in live instrumentation, and despite the synth presence, it all sounds distinctly human. This is precisely where the album’s title comes in: “Six months ago I got my own apartment for the first time in my life. I invested in house slippers, some serious recording equipment, and I hardly left my place since,” recalls Benny. Furthermore, he reveals I’m not insane hearing those background yells: “I took quite an experimental approach for this album. I recorded, for example, some backing vocals and little screams standing in the kitchen or bathroom and I came up with some fine modulations.”
Benny’s hip-hop background is explored most directly on “For Your Love”. Like a few of the other songs, it’s a shamelessly direct love song, with a chorus that evokes Justin Timberlake, yet miles catchier and more creative (read: not “Sexy Back”). After all, Benny’s soundscapes have more in common with Nigel Godrich than Timbaland, yet a good bit more cluttered than either. Continuing the Timberlake connection, the title of “We’ll Make Lovesongs” is suspiciously reminiscent of Justin’s last album title, though the song’s groove sounds more like the Roots’ “Guns Are Drawn”. After a somewhat freaky bridge, the song’s endlessly danceable chorus refrain is repeated atop a bubbly synth until building back into a final climax. Considering his affinity for adding and subtracting elements around the hook, one wonders if Benny’s been blasting Spoon’s Kill the Moonlight as of late.
“You don’t decide this overnight”, moans Benny on “Overnight”, in which a hip hop beat in waltz time strangely envelops a floating keyboard loop. The odd song leads into a fantastic record-scratching and horn mixture, like some love letter to the cut ‘n’ paste style of the Dust Brothers. “All I’m Good For” is just as endearing, with an emphasis on retro piano and handclaps. Benny’s voice sounds strangely innocent, pleading: “Come with me / All we can do is run away at this time / Want to defy the force and even the scores / It’s all I’m good for”. Only thing is, it’s one of the few memorable lyrical moments around.
In fact, the album’s three ballads all seem to have fairly lackluster lyrics and melodies engaging enough that compensate. “Over My Head” is the best of the bunch. The guitar-oriented arrangement is as simple as it gets for Benny, though you can practically sense his desire to fill it to the brim with sound effect layers and god-knows-what instrumentation. By the sounds of it, Benny is falling in love, yet his curious couplets fall flat: “I wonder if you’re into As The World Turns/ And would you like living with me? / And are you a Kubrick girl? Or do you prefer Disney?” Dammit, Benny, Disney wasn’t even a director! Jeez! In “Let Me In”, he begs entrance to her (same girl?) house, promising: “If you decide to let me in / I’ll bring the sun and let it shine for you / Cuz when I’m close to you / My heart feels so alive, yeah!” Because really, does anyone not secretly love those cheesy Christmas bell effects that pop up?
Ultimately, the Dutch singer is undoubtedly on to something with his sprinkling of flat-out spontaneously raw sounds in the context of an electronic-based production. His songwriting skills are pretty damn sharp, as well. Considering the album’s finest moments are also its most unique and wild (“Coconut”, “Overnight”), I hope Benny delves into his grandest ambitions on future releases, provided he maintains this album’s true-to-its-title self-made appeal. Indeed, Benny Sings… but he does a whole lot more.