Man, is Ben Jelen ever an easy target. Look at those cheekbones! Those tousled, windswept locks, that searching gaze, those pensive eyebrows lord, he's good looking. Not to mention the silly promotional juggernaut rallying behind him: advance press is heralding 24-year-old Jelen as the soul-baring balladeer for a new generation of sensitive teenyboppers, a piano playing, pop-edged Bono with a model's looks and an aching heart. The young singer-songwriter ends up coming across like that moderately talented kid in your dorm who can play a bit of piano, a bit of guitar, and irritatingly manages to get a gaggle of girls swooning every time he sits down at the keys.
The crux of the Jelen debate (pronounced "yellin'") and the reason why he's so hard to pigeonhole, is that, against all odds, the guy's good. He's really good, and in an ever-more-fractured music scene dominated by hyper-cool irony and über-serious gloom, Ben Jelen throws an unforeseen monkey wrench into the critical machinery: sincerity. Jelen's debut is a hopeful, if uneven, album of earnest, piano-based, pop-rock, entitled Give It All Away. Jelen's tunes are as sharp as his bone structure, and though his sincerity can be grating, and his lyrics frequently fall short, there's always an audience for heartfelt pop songs (read: pubescent girls), and they'll certainly be charmed by Jelen's tear-jerking melodicism.
Give It All Away isn't a groundbreaking album, nor is it terribly rebellious, though it clearly isn't intended to be either. The arrangements swirl and twinkle, building to orchestral choruses when necessary and shrinking into stripped-down confessionals when appropriate. Tasteful use of banjo and violin (Jelen plays both), and a smattering of strings and electronics keep the eclectic-minded listener happy. Comparisons to piano men Elton John and Billy Joel are apt, but Jelen's influences seem more in line with adult-alternative pioneers like Peter Gabriel or folk-pop troubadours like Sarah McLaughlin; his melodies tug at your heartstrings, rather than tickling your ribcage. Jelen's voice recalls that histrionic piano-goof in your dorm, but with just a bit more panache -- he may have a model's good looks, but he plays the everydude admirably.
Jelen gilds his compositions with an impressive maturity -- many of tracks on Give It All Away reach a level of melodic nuance that any young songwriter would kill for. The hook in "She'll Hear You", a gorgeous descending refrain, has the classic trappings of the great tunesmiths, like Elton John shaking hands with Tears for Fears; "Come On", the first single from the album, has a sky-high chorus smacking of U2 at their most lovelorn. The lone cover on the album is from the rock musical Hedwig and the Angry Inch, a pretty tune called "Wicked Little Town". The opportunity afforded by the cover song is not wasted on Jelen -- he shows his good taste in an esoteric choice, and his light touch in sweetening the acerbic original is tasteful, if a bit predictable.
Unfortunately, for all of its promising high points, Give It All Away isn't perfect. It's a top-heavy album -- the first five or six tracks are all stellar, but the tunes get a bit muddier and less striking from there. "Stay" feels painfully generic, and the maudlin chorus of "Falling Down" sounds like a leftover ballad from Counting Crows. Jelen's lyrics, also, aren't as profound as his poetic waxing would have one believe. Most of his lyrics are simply bland, covering typical lovelorn troubadour topics -- self-doubt, love-object-worship, girls who always leave, etc. The uptempo "Every Step", for example, contains the underwhelming line "Run away cause we need no reasons / Run away 'cause we love the night." Jelen's no Dylan, to be sure, but at least he delivers his platitudes with enough conviction to push his more cringe-inducing lyrical turns into the background of sugar-sweet melodies.
Jelen is a well-designed product -- he appears attractive, talented, and sincere as all hell -- and as a consequence it's a bit hard to be a believer in the face of such careful spin-doctoring. Ideally the songs would speak for themselves, but Jelen's major-label caretakers sabotage that possibility by covering his work with professional gloss. Take "Christine", one of two Matrix-helmed track on the album. Here, Team Avril's influence seems all too transparent, and, as the producers' hired-gun status suddenly comes clear, it makes one wonder why they might have been hired in the first place. I would like to think that Jelen's talent shines through the high-end production and A&R fooferah, but it's still too early to tell. Time will show whether this model citizen is truly as sincere as his publicists say he is, or if he's just another ivory-tickling dude in the dorm lounge.