Ben Lee: Hey You Yes You

[25 September 2003]

By Mitch Pugh

Ben There, Done That

Let’s get this out of the way first: Ben Lee‘s best work this year ended up on someone else’s record. As disappointing as Evan Dando’s trumpeted return (Baby, I’m Bored) was for most longtime Lemonheads fans, the few admirable tracks on the record were penned by none other than Lee.

The Australian wunderkind has always been a bit of a nomad, though. He broke onto the scene at the sprightly age of 14 as the frontman for Aussie indie rockers Noise Addict. Given his age and his penchant for penning clever, catchy tunes, Lee was widely hailed as budding a musical genius. Essentially, he was fucked.

But did young boy Ben let that get to him? Of course not. Instead, he recorded a series of mediocre indie pop records that never really caught on anywhere, including 1997’s Something to Remember Me By, his Singer/Songwriter Record, and 1998’s Breathing Tornado, his Power Pop Record. Some cynics wondered if Lee had skipped a step, moving from establishing his youthful promise to making middle-of-the-road, late-career records. Wasn’t there supposed to be something of substance in between first?

At the ripe age of 19, he was all washed up. But did the little Lee-ster get his dobber down? Hell, no. He hooked up with two other teasers named Ben—Kweller and Folds—and started the Ben Pack, touring all over the great country of, you guessed it, Australia. They collaborated. They recorded. They screwed around. (Of course, the other two also put out records.) And when it was all done, it had been five years since the anointed had sung a note on one of his own records.

Essentially, he was really fucked.

Enter the (sort of) long awaited Hey You Yes You. Cue the trumpets. Call the press. Book the appearance on MTV’s Subterranean. And can you get David Fricke on the phone? Because, really, the storyline here is near perfect. Potential-laden, former youth star gets back in the studio and returns to his catchy, clever roots. Comeback record of the year, right? Can’t you see that curly-locked, innocent face on the cover of Rolling Stone?

Did we say something about being fucked?

As much as everyone writing a review of this record wanted it to be good for all the previously stated, story-driven reasons, the unfortunate truth of the matter is that Ben Lee really may not be as talented as previously advertised. Because when push comes to shove, all there really is to measure Lee’s talent (or anyone else’s for that matter) is his records. And when you get that yardstick out, Lee is clearly lacking.

Hey You Yes You starts out with the jangly, familiar prose of a slacker über-teen. He’s a smart aleck alright, with the emphasis on smart, and we’re supposed to find the whole affair charming. Never mind the overly cute title of the opening track, “Running With Scissors”.

“Aftertaste” has a bit of an urban club feel to it channeled through Lou Barlow’s Folk Implosion or Conner Oberst’s Bright Eyes. It’s a catchy number with semi-clever lyrics. But like most of the record, it sounds so desperately hollow. Contrived for our affection. Ditto on “Dirty Mind”, which despite its attempts to transcend its trappings, comes off like a slightly more literate Jack Johnson (see lines like “A dream is a weapon”).

After a while all of these mellow, bluesy yet somehow club anthem-style songs begin to blend into one another until they become one long string of mediocrity. And as the album goes on, the lyrics (rather surprisingly) only get worse. By the sixth track, “Chills”, you’re just hoping someone will put you out of your misery.

And that’s too bad; yet another great white hope gone the way of Gerry Cooney. Beaten to a pulp, senselessly flailing about in the ring. Even the slow-burning and promising “Still on the Line”—with all it’s bleeps and whistles—can’t save this lightweight. Yet every time Lee laces them up, we’ll hope for lightening in a bottle, the realization of all that unfulfilled promise. If Hey You Yes You is any indication, we’re likely to be waiting for a long while.

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