[3 December 2008]
For a musician looking to traverse the borderlands of folk, classical, jazz, soul, and pop, the cello may be the best instrumental vessel to guide the way. The cello can fluidly slip among the genres—here, building classical motifs; there, jazzily improvising over chord changes; here, adding texture beneath a guitar solo; there, complementing a singer’s soulful hums.
Ben Sollee knows the cello’s flexibility. The classically trained cellist spent this year touring with renowned banjoists Abigail Washburn and Bela Flek as part of the Sparrow Quartet, Washburn’s experiment in Chinese and American cross-cultural folk exchange. Even before joining the Sparrow Quartet, however, Sollee was beginning to attract attention for using unusual plucking and bowing techniques to create quiet, soulful folk and pop tunes. But one of Sollee’s strengths is also his curious spirit in instrumentation beyond the cello. Learning to Bend is Sollee’s first solo disc, and it uses spare but inventive arrangements in a refreshingly cool exploration of the open spaces between genres and between instruments.
The album’s titular song—and strongest track by far—“Bend” illustrates Sollee’s spare but adventurous approach to songcraft, to lovely effect. The song is driven by delicate harp chords that later crescendo and cascade over Sollee’s cello as the song progresses. Sollee sings a whispered soul that will appeal to fans of Ray LaMontagne and Amos Lee, and he delivers the initial lyrics in a hushed, musing tone: “When the storm comes / Will you reject the rain? / If it falls not soft /If it falls not tame?” The song begins with a tone reminiscent of 1960s soul, but it rises out of its quiet reflection suddenly when Washburn joins Sollee for a chorus whose reach and soar would sound right at home on a Broadway stage. The whole effect seems at first something like Sam Cooke singing a Bach interlude in the middle of Les Mis, but it’s a case where the whole is more than the sum of those incongruent parts.
The only problem with Learning to Bend is that Sollee does not yet write song lyrics as delicately sophisticated as his instrumentation. Sollee is an outspoken critic of militarism and wasteful consumption and commercialism in music, and his political beliefs become as heavy-handed as his instrumentation is gauzy. Especially towards the front of the album, song after song delivers Sollee’s political message in a style that is at best vaguely clever and at worst clunky. On album opener “A Few Honest Words”, for example, Sollee notes, “Our love of freedom / Puts a veil over our eyes / And rights that are given can be taken away”. However valid the point, it doesn’t flow off the tongue.
Sollee fares slightly better on the satirical “Bury With Me With My Car”. His thesis—that Americans are overly dependent on their cars—is banal, but the song is rescued by jaunty mouth harp and fiddle lines, Washburn’s always-welcome backing vocals, and a bit more playful, affectionate wit than Sollee displays on other tracks. “China’s first emperor was buried with his army / And what’s a cowboy without his horse?” he sings. “In America, they’ll bury us / With our cars”.
The competing highs and lows of Sollee’s instrumental skill and over-earnest, preachy lyrics show most clearly on Sollee’s updated re-write of Sam Cooke’s gorgeous “A Change Is Gonna Come”. In its arrangement, the cover is inspired. Acoustic rhythm guitar keeps time over Sollee’s lilting cello bowing, and as the song progresses, Sollee layers on drums, organ, and saxophone and lifts the song up into jubilant celebration. Unfortunately, Sollee doesn’t merely jolt Cooke’s world-weary but hopeful strings into a danceable celebration of that hope. He also adds new lyrics that bog the song down in overly literal self-seriousness. “There’s no rhyme nor reason”, Sollee sings. “No sweet melody / More and more weapons mean less security”. Even those who don’t normally object to new artists updating old classics might wish that Sollee had left Cooke’s transcendent lyrics well enough alone.
Still, the thrills of Sollee’s journey through bluegrass, folk, jazz, and rhythm and blues are great enough that the lyrical bumps on the road can be overlooked. And occasionally, such as on the quiet, tender tune “I Can’t”, Sollee’s words match the tone of his music perfectly. “This ain’t the flag I thought we’d raise / This ain’t the wind I’d hoped would blow”, Sollee mulls over mournful, nostalgic vibes and electric guitar. “This ain’t the sword pulled from the lake / Yours ain’t the heart I want to break”. It’s the album’s most hushed song, but it reflects the greatest strength of Sollee’s approach to music: the subtlest of emotions often ring loudest in the spaces between musical genres. Let’s hope that as Sollee continues to be beguiling in his instrumentation, he learns to be just as inventive in his lyricism.