When I first listened to Ben Davis' debut album a couple of years ago, one thing that struck me was the sincerity and honesty both in his vocals and his lyrics. Although rather hushed and quiet for most of the record, The Hushed Patterns of Relief, the singer seemed to get everything going in the right direction. And now, back with a myriad of producers, 16 musicians and an odyssey that took him to six states, he has returned with another dozen tracks. And they are just as sweet, fragile and innocent as the previous record.
"Departure Warning" starts with a spacey Pink Floyd circa Meddle with a simplistic Beatles pop approach. Davis is in great form and the backing musicians, including guitarist Michael Holland and pianist Cornbread Compton (what a handle!), flush out the track beautifully. Not too harsh and bringing to mind '60s pop, Davis oozes confidence from the beginning in a way the late Elliott Smith would be proud of. "Time a Bind" is more extrovert and has Des Ark member Aimee Argote directing the song more than Davis. It contains an alternative rock feeling but ends up limping to the ending. Thankfully the dreamy and lush "Old and Played" has McCartney and Lennon all over it, minus the Sgt. Pepper uniforms. Davis guides the song with a steady set of hands, doing vocals, piano, organ and Rhodes work on the number. It's a song that you can certainly get lost in quickly.
Davis gets a bit murkier for "Blue-Hearted Sleeve", with the Southern rock guitar chords just under the surface. A sweeping orchestra sound meets this and drowns it out, although it comes off just a bit too grandiose too soon into the song. It reverts back to the rock and becomes heavier again, although Davis does enough to keep it from going off the rails. One aspect of the song is it could seemingly go on for much longer, with the four-minute mark sounding like the homestretch before it quickly halts. "Underdawg" doesn't work at all -- a harder and grittier guitar-driven tune that has bits of Pink Floyd's Animals obviously throughout. The pace is also quite quirky and off-kilter. Might make for a good demo or jam track in the studio, but is not final product material, not one bit.
"Crawler" is gorgeous but in an acid-tripping, psychedelic kind of way. Again the slow harmonies draw words out as a hypnotic rhythm section tends to steal the song from Davis and the vocal performance. "Is this what they've been telling you tonight," Davis asks with a quasi-ethereal delivery. Andy Herod from the Comas shares vocals with Davis before more of the '70s progressive dream rock ensues. Not all of it meshes well, though, including the below average "In Either Words" which could be mistaken for Sloan circa Pretty Together or Between the Bridges. Davis has to work to get this song just below snuff, with blips and bleeps creating a more electronic and layered sound.
The foundation for most of the songs is to build slow and therefore create blocks on top of blocks. It works near perfectly for "Green Forestry Ranger", with Argote and Davis doing their best homage to Stevie Nicks and Tom Petty. While a Zeppelin-like guitar riff bridges the two distinct areas of the song, it takes a life of its own to grand results! Shuffling the deck though, Davis gives a piano and guitar ditty, "Just Relax Won't You", a Brit-pop approach that Blur could perfect. As well, the title rings too true as Davis relaxes too much on the tune. He does pick up his bootstraps with an impressive summer-oriented pop song in "A Forced Escape Canoe" complete with occasional handclaps. "Double Daring" features Davis showing his acoustic singer-songwriter side with flying colors. If he decides to go this sparser route, or just continues evolving as a musician, listeners will be the real winners regardless.