Benji Hughes actually has the cojones to release a double-disc debut. On that album, entitled A Love Extreme, Hughes explores the virtually untapped arena of love and relationships. Or rather, Hughes examines the feelings the love brings. He charts love’s ups, downs, insignificant subtleties, and hackneyed scenarios, from one extreme to the next, through 25 apparently-necessarily-included tracks. Produced by Keefus Ciancia (T-Bone Burnett, Cassandra Wilson), the disc also features multi-instrumentalist Gus Seyffert (Sia, Inara George). Hughes doesn’t limit his fodder to romantic relationships, although relationships with women play a central role in many songs. Hughes spans neighborly love (“Neighbor Down the Hall”) with an Eels-esque song using a written-note dialogue, as well as getting stood up by the neighborhood slut (“You Stood Me Up”) with an eerie chiding refrain. In all his splendor, he paints pictures and evokes feelings by incorporating a variety of genre-spanning compositions. Every so often a few genius rays shine through the stratum. Other times, these tracks seem like lackluster Beck b-sides.
An instrumental “I Am You, You Are Me, We Are One” begins disc one with an overall Buddhist perspective on love. The drum machine matched with the pseudo-woodwinds sounds like the beginning of a 1990s teen drama television series. A snappier track follows next, changing the fake drums from cheesy and retro to sleek, hip, and fresh pop. “Tight Tee Shirt” pays homage to the girl next door who wears the innocently seductive tight t-shirt. The sweet pop refrain is reinforced by Hughes’ candy-centered lyrics—“Her lips so incredible they taste like candy / Just like really awesome candy” and “like a wax museum pastry”—helping the sugary mood extend beyond the instrumentation. At the end of the song, a guitar brings feedback and straight rock jams to the forefront before fizzling into the next selection. The short frenzy begs for something more and ends up being anticlimactic.
Techno and dance influenced “Why Do These Parties Always End the Same Way?” fuses deep, funky bass synthesizer with waves of treble synth and processed backing vocals, fitting the theme of describing late night parties. Hughes expresses the discombobulating feeling of floating party to party, exchanging phone numbers, and holding “meaningful” conversations that will be forgotten tomorrow with his words and high-energy, rave-like beats and keys. Like an extended scratch of a record and sudden silence, the hallucinogenic mood stops, party ceases, and Hughes repeats, “We need to call the cops / Somebody killed the DJ”. Dontcha just hate it when that happens? The track returns to the rave before emptying into an ominous music box closer. The open space against the mysterious chimes expresses the lonely, empty feeling of returning from a party alone, striking out once more.
Songs on the second disc manage to span just as many genres and influences as the first disc, but fewer stand out as anything extraordinary. That said, the first song, “Even If”, switches from grand-scale pop overture to crooner paradise in one of the most memorable tracks on the album. What would normally be a 1940s-era chorus line gets the digital treatment as keyboards become backing vocals. “There’s only one way to find another lover like me / And that’s drowning in wine”, Hughes boasts, and then later, “There’s only one way to find another lover like you / And that’s drowning in wine”. He speaks of a boyfriend threatening the girl breaking up with him and of the girl doing the breaking up. Hughes basically borrows a partial riff from the Beatles (“Revolution” in a different key) in attempt at the earnest love song (“Vibe So Hot”). However, his trite “You’re the first thing on my mind when I wake up / You’re the last thing that I think of when I go to sleep” proves a tad embarrassing. “I Want You Right Now” would have been a better title for the alt-country-leaner with Beatles tactics.
“So Well” might make some ladies swoon, but feels more like a rip-off mixture of the Foundations’ “Baby, Now That I’ve Found You” and John Mayer’s “Your Body Is a Wonderland”. However, nothing can deny the swoonability of lines like “You’ve got it made because you’re made so well”. Punk-pop “The Mummy” feels refreshing as Hughes’s moans and sock-hop vocal harmonies warn against (perhaps as a self-reminder mantra) coming undone when drinking to excess. His wails end the song, which tops off at under two minutes in true punk fashion. A slow, waltz-like dirge (“Love Is a Razor”), (probably) unwittingly referencing Bette Midler’s “The Rose”, provides a canvas on which Hughes sings off-key. The haunting piece reflects the utter devastation love can inflict on a person if it goes awry, illuminated in Hughes’s downtrodden vocals.
Despite several hackneyed moments on his debut, Hughes has crafted a solid set of songs that causes feelings as it explores them. However, Hughes doesn’t so much create his own sound as he borrows from others in snippets and puts things together haphazardly. It’s probably safe to argue that this album could have been trimmed down to one disc. Though the album provides a good listen, there’s a bit too much filler and not enough identity.
// Notes from the Road
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