To hear the Brits talk about it, pop music across the pond is a dismal affair. It’s become more “Brittney” than “Brit-ish”, losing its native flavor and becoming all too generic.
Enter Esser, the UK’s new hope to restore the pop n’ sizzle to the fizzling Brit-pop scene. Armed with an arsenal of unpretentious songs geared towards the dance floor and a keen desire to project an earnest authenticity of musical merriment sans pretension, Ben Esser has gone solo after gigging as the drummer for underwhelming British neo-punk outfit, LadyFuzz, who split up in 2007. Braveface is the debut album from the 23-year-old whose sound blends a number of styles including electronica and harmony-laden mixtures of ’60s and ’90s pop, binding them with a cheery, effervescent bounce. His look and sound is an amalgamation of several decades, rocking a sky-high ’50s DA pompadour with shaved-down, ’70s post-punk sides sides à la ’80s Morrissey minus the mope, Esser’s decade-hopping sartorial and sonic sensibilities could easily see him voted “Most Likely to Duet with Amy Winehouse” (if she ever cleans up her act).
Essentially a one-man band who writes, produces, and programs his own music, Esser has taken a totally grass-roots approach to getting his music to the masses. Prior to the release of Braveface, Esser drummed up fan support by utilizing social bookmarking hot-spots to trot out his latest creations. His small, yet rabid fanbase reminisces about the days where you could float on over to Esser’s MySpace page and hear his demos and finished tracks … but were unable to purchase a proper album to spin at leisure in the car or on the ol’ iPod.
Esser’s devotees finally have their wish. Each song on the ten-track Braveface sounds distinctly different from the next with the Essex native bringing a different style to the focal point of each song. At Braveface‘s core, however, Esser steps up to the plate with a heavy hitting dose of cheery Britpop. His cockney’d up, Ray Davies-esque delivery bubbles and fizzes against his stylistic concoction that sounds as if he’s being backed by his very own electropop lounge band. (Incidentally, his current live incarnation does feature Esser being backed by a live band which includes his brother, Reuben Esser, on drums, as well as the incorporation of a brass section.)
Emblematic of the combination of styles on his predominantly pop serving tray, “Leaving Town” kicks Braveface off with a resounding drum roll and Esser’s slow, deliberate (and somewhat Motown-esque) declaration of “Baby, I’m leavin’ town”. It feels oh-so retro with its plucky chorus of “La-la-la-la-la-la-la”s and an undercurrent of saxophone running through the track.
A different strain of ’60s sound rears its head on the superb ballad “Bones”, with its surprisingly warm feel. Acoustic strumming is juxtaposed against clicking clip-clops keeping a rudimentary beat alongside the soft hum of a synth. The icing on the top is the softly-sung “Ooh wee oo-ooh” Beach Boys harmonies that provide the background for the song’s chorus.
Theme of relationship woes are prevalent on the album with the aforementioned “Bones” as well as “Satisfied”, a track about an incredibly fickle woman who traipses into tango territory with its odd, hard-to-define pastiche of sound decorated with castanet-like hand-clapping. “Satisfied”‘s boogied-down, ambiguously ethnic piano (bravefacing his way through a new, self-created genre: electro-ethnic, perhaps?) is crossed with a strain of a melodramatic silent film score.
Esser travels further out in his musical time-space continuum with “Work It Out” a a robotic ’80s pop-n’-lock party with zingy, distorted vocals and pulsating beats that crawled out of a vintage Atari console and onto the record.
Slightly out of place, “Headlock”‘s sing-songy style almost seems to shrug off the blippy, retro vibe of the other tracks on Braveface. Its breezy chorus grows on you to the point of actually becoming addictive, but “Headlock” just seems too thoroughly modern compared to the rest of Esser’s decade-skipping fare. Then again, the album’s closer, “Stop Dancing”, features Esser doing a pretty convincing channeling of a Timberlake/Timbaland production centered around some stellar percussion driving its contemporary groove.
Overall, Esser delivers a solid pop debut for a guy who many would have dismissed as “just” the drummer for a lackluster post-punk band. While there are a few middling tracks on Braveface (mostly concentrated towards the end of the disc), Esser makes a glorious attempt at reviving Brit-pop and infusing it with something completely different. Maybe that’s just what it needed.