Benjy Ferree: Come Back to the Five and Dime, Bobby Dee, Bobby Dee
On …Bobby Dee, Benjy Ferree is a musical and temporal chameleon, moving fluidly between genres and decades as if time were just another instrument to be played.
Come Back to the Five and Dime, Bobby Dee, Bobby Dee, the second full-length from Washington D.C. singer-songwriter Benjy Ferree, is, purportedly, a concept record about the life and times of Bobby Driscoll. Driscoll, as you may know, was an Academy Award-winning child actor who starred in some of Disney's most popular live-action films in the late 1940s and early 1950s. After serving as the voice and close-up model for Peter Pan in the studio's 1953 animated classic, Driscoll was dropped by Disney, as he had hit puberty and developed a bad case of acne. Driscoll spent the rest of his life trying fruitlessly to reclaim his place among the Hollywood elite, ultimately falling into a life of drug addiction and crime. He died homeless and penniless in an abandoned Manhattan tenement at the age of 31.
On …Bobby Dee, Ferree uses Driscoll's story as a jumping-off point for his own imagined narratives. The album does not indulge in a chronological retelling of Discoll's fall from grace; rather, the record's 14 tracks are peppered with emotions and settings that can be loosely read as relating to Driscoll. To be quite honest, references to the titular "Bobby Dee" are nowhere close to being the most striking aspect of Ferree's sophomore LP -- the real story here is Ferree's eclectic yet cohesive songwriting.
Hearing opening number "Tired of Being Good", you'd be forgiven for pegging Ferree as a purveyor of bluesy garage rock. Still, the song gets the album off to a strong start, with plenty of muscular riffs, crashing cymbals and references to "lost boys everywhere". "Fear", however, takes an unexpected turn, opening with a few seconds of unaccompanied, Beach Boys-esque harmonizing before Ferree's soulful vocals and a thick, deliberate bass line kick in. By the time we reach the chorus, it's clear that the song's melodic sensibility is deeply rooted in the early rock and roll of Richie Valens and the Big Bopper -- a style of songwriting that doesn't seem to get much play among contemporary artists nowadays.
"Big Business" finds Ferree returning to the blues-rock template, though the falsetto delivery on the chorus -- "Business is good / Business is fine / Business is so good" -- again harkens back to the '50s. The song's lyrics paint a picture of splendor that seems especially alien in today's financial climate ("Humongous houses and diamond rings / they 'aint so far away"), further reinforcing our sense of place and time within the confines of the song.
It's likely that when Jack White hears the grimy gem "Blown Out (Gold Doubloons and Pcs of 8)", he'll kick himself for not writing it first. All bluesy riffing, fuzzy guitars and pounding drums, the song moves along at a steady pace, with Ferree's voice sounding not unlike that of White. The lyrics here feature some of the album's more overt references to Driscoll ("If I could keep up with appearances / Running all over the silver screen / But I was growing up at a ripe old age / When I turned seventeen") and closes with the worldly chant, "Gold doubloons and pieces of eight / She is my pirate treasure".
A piano-based ballad, "The Grips" slows things down a bit and gives Ferree's elastic vocal chords a chance to stretch out toward Freddy Mercury's range. The song also finds Ferree at his most unabashedly sentimental, singing syrupy lines like "Oh I'm runnin' / My heart is a thumpin'" with an appropriately over-the-top zeal. "I Get No Love", meanwhile, is a rollicking country rock number, while "Come to Me, Coming to Me" speeds blues rock up to a punk rock tempo.
"Whirlpool of Love", the album's most epic ballad, sounds like a sinister version of Queen. Ferree again relishes the opportunity to ape Mercury and when he finally looses the gem, "The devil may care / But I don't", it sounds like he's been sharpening the phrase in his mouth all the while.
"Pisstopher Chrisstopher" is by far the album's heaviest song, sounding a bit like the White Stripes might were they backed by a wall of guitars. "When You're 16", on the other hand, returns to country rock territory, as does closing number "Zipperface Blues", which sounds like Ferree's take on Hank Williams--tinny microphone and all.
As disjointed as …Bobby Dee might sound on paper, in practice the album proves surprisingly fluid. Ferree doesn't hop so much as he swims from one genre to another, finding and joining common threads as he travels through the pages of the American songbook. The end result is an album that's at once confident, playful and timeless, a treat for rock and roll fans of all stripes. On Come Back to the Five and Dime, Bobby Dee, Bobby Dee Benjy Ferree proves impossible to pigeonhole -- and just as difficult to resist.