Benevento has shown us how he can do as a keyboardist and composer, and it's disappointing to hear less than that on a new album.
Keyboardist Marco Benevento has been at his best, as on 2008's Invisible Baby, when he merges his jazz roots with rock influences and quirky experiments. While he's not static enough to have his sound easily pinned down, Benevento's blending of influences leads to music that's as playful as it is smart, and as inventive as it is accessible. His latest album, The Story of Fred Short shows an artist continuing to search for new sounds. Unfortunately, Benevento's become less idiosyncratic in some ways here. Both his increasing interest in his vocal performance and his growing pop sound lead to an album that, while not unimpressive, simply doesn't carry the uniqueness of previous releases.
Opening number “In the Afternoon Tomorrow” demonstrates both the strengths and weaknesses of the disc. Where Benevento used to play with both time and sonics, here he crafts just a pleasant pop song with a melody that could have been shared with, say, Jack Johnson. I say, “just”, though, as if pop songs are that easily come by, and it's no insult to consider that this track would have fit comfortably on the Curious George soundtrack. Benevento pays attention to the details, adjusting the effects on his vocals and develops a surprisingly catchy tune.
None of which is bad, and most of which is good. The problem, maybe unfairly, lies in the fact that we don't need Benevento to do that. On the radio, “In the Afternoon Tomorrow” blends in well enough and won't lead to a station change; but it feels like an underachievement. It's hard to feel satisfied with that, even if most of the album is pleasant (that word again) enough that it's hard to lodge a complaint.
Fortunately, Benevento does provide plenty of surprises, skipping from '70s classic rock (“Heavy Metal Floating Upstream”) to 1980s dance grooves (“II Seven Twenty Two”) to the light psych that Grandaddy did at its best (“III Walking With Tyrone”). Benevento's influences are still all over the place and he's still afraid to merge them and jump between them. That enthusiastic attitude carries the album; it's hard not to have fun when the artist is.
Even so, Benevento does too little with all those sounds. It would be nice to hear the cheekiness pushed a little further, or to hear more sounds enfolded within a given track. A track like “VI I Can't See the Light” reveals Benevento's admitted LCD Soundsystem influence (and, therefore, that act's ever-present sources), making for a fun name-that-sound game, but it doesn't have the mark of Benevento on it. There are keys and newly found vocals, but there isn't a sonic knot to untangle or a virtuosity to ride on.
Had Benevento spent a career simply making retro-inflected indie rock, perhaps The Story of Fred Short might sit well enough. Benevento's in control of his craft, and that certainly counts for something. He's shown us how much he can do as a keyboardist and composer, though, and it's disappointing to hear less than that on a new album.