Contrary to popular belief, Ben Jelen isn’t just another forgettable piano-popster.
Coming off like a sedated Ben Folds, Jelen’s 2004 debut album, Give It All Away, was a murky, mid-tempo mess of precious ivory tickling that just happened to have a few fuzz guitars riding underneath each song. Said guitars were provided by The Matrix, the production trio best known for producing Avril Lavigne’s debut album, giving Liz Phair a radio hit and ruining the Mooney Suzuki’s career. Lavigne’s 2002 debut single, “Complicated”, was a massive hit that, oddly, became the defining sound of pop-rock for the next few years (until Ashlee Simpson ruined the whole thing shortly after). Jelen was a benefactor of The Matrix’s skills, even if it was for only a couple of tracks on his debut. However, three years after its release, the pop landscape has changed yet again. The Matrix’s sound is so out of style that not even Avril wants to work with them again. Jelen has had a few label shakeups, has managed to release an underground EP, and now resurfaces on a new label with a brand new producer to guide him to Top 40 glory.
That producer is Linda Perry.
Best known for her work with Pink and Christina Aguilera, Linda Perry has come a long way since 4 Non-Blondes disbanded. As a producer, she’s best known for playing to artists strengths, be it Pink’s middle-finger confessionals or Aguilera’s dirty Etta James fetish. Given Jelen’s anonymous balladeering, it’s hard to determine what direction Perry would lead him towards on Ex-Sensitive, his sophomore album. Yet right from the get-go, there’s a change a-brewin’. “Pulse” places a three chord guitar-riff front and center, and then builds a dance-song around it. When the layers of “ahh” vocals come in to mesh with Perry’s string arrangements, it builds to a stunning piece of pop perfection. It’s a song we never could have guessed would come out of either Perry or Jelen (much less both together), but it serves as a stunning opener. This firecracker is immediately followed by “Where Do We Go”, which cross-pollinates Wings-era McCartney with an earnest Ben Folds imitation, and the whole thing serves as a fine, if not jaw-dropping, mid-tempo rocker. One might be even wonder if this is a different Ben Jelen altogether (like an evil twin brother in the Jelen family that happened to run off with all the talent and left his brother holding the blandness).
It’s here where we see what precisely Perry decided to do with the piano-pop prince: remove the piano. Although the piano and keyboards still pop up, they’re nowhere near as spotlight-hogging as they were on his debut. Perry loves guitars, and is not ashamed to bring them all in for a fun little party here. However, it’s both a gift and a curse for Ex-Sensitive. The echoing six-string tones on “The Other Side” seem to work well with the simple church organ chords in the background, but only for a minute. The song never seems to change (even when it changes to the chorus), ultimately coming off like some radio-friendly mobius strip of dry melody. Melodically, the other rockers on the album (particularly “Just a Little” and the title track), never seem to rise above the disc’s opening one-two punch. Then, just when we think Ben learned his lesson, he goes back to the balladering, and our high hopes for Ex-Sensitive are invariably dashed.
It’s just unfortunate that since we’ve now seen what Ben sounds like in a variety of contexts, the root of the problem is abundantly clear: Ben Jelen himself. His voice is the most anonymous thing on his albums, with his lyrics coming in as a close second. On one of the better pop tracks, “Mr. Philosopher”, Jelen takes what should’ve been a song of cut-n-paste metaphor and manages to make it not only bland, but contradictory and confusing (all while sprinkled with more clichés than a Vin Diesel action movie):
Mr. Sailor, sail your seas
But navigate the way back home
Mr. Philosopher agrees
And he thinks that you should know
To follow the sun
A-when you don’t know where
Where you’re from
So let a moment change your mind
And let a mind meet someone else’s
Let somebody else be right
‘cos if you’re wise, you know nothing at all
Despite this, Jelen still manages to hold at least a few surprises up his sleeve. Closing ballad “What We’ve Done” manages to be a genuinely sincere song, largely because this is Jelen’s first complete song without an ounce of production-heavy bombast. With an acoustic guitar and a calm, solemn cello, we not only A> get his voice front-and-center, but B> we actually connect with him. His lyrics about holding onto memories until your dying day are still largely clichéd, but they get a free-pass due to his evocative, emotional delivery. Considering that his last emotive peak was a cover of the Hedwig & the Angry Inch centerpiece “Wicked Little Town”, this is an extraordinary achievement.
We walk away from Ex-Sensitive with a better idea of who Jelen is as an artist (as opposed to a red-hot producer’s play-toy), even though many of his hurdles are largely self-imposed. It is here that we discover that, for the first time, Ben Jelen isn’t simply monotonous. Maybe next time around, he’ll even go as far as to completely impress us.