Artist: Ben + Vesper
Label: Sounds Familyre
12 tracks / 36:39
Attempts to classify modern popular music genres never seem to totally work unless the genre is so limited as to actually invite a tightly-defining label. More adventurous groups in the sixties eventually gave rise to art-rock, a loosely-defined genre that took in a wide variety of stylistic elements with at least one thing in common: the artist used the medium of pop music in all of its variety, fused with elements of everything from baroque to jazz, and created popular music that was thoughtful, creative and, yes, fun.
If there was any negative fallout from art-rock it was the tendency to forget about the fun part and become over-indulgent and pretentious. Ben + Vesper's Honors is a strong art-pop statement, with the fun part intact, delivering clever pop music and intriguing lyrics to the listener looking for something more than teenage angst and indie noodling.
Drawing mostly from a Beatles-influenced background, and incorporating some jazz and surrealist sensibilities, Honors is an engaging tour de pop, featuring Ben's inviting, friendly baritone vocals melding hand-in-glove with Vesper's creamy alto as they navigate inventive melodies across a warm sound-scape of real people playing real instruments. Co-produced by Ben and Vesper Stamper and Daniel Smith (reportedly in an amazingly short five days), Honors is a project that sounds refreshingly intimate, with all instruments neatly in place sonically as well as in terms of composition.
In the opening track, “Adult vAcA,” Ben informs us that “tomorrow is working out much better than today,” - it's a catchy tune with stunning bass work and nice timing tricks. Following this is “My Father's Eyes,” certainly not the Amy Grant classic, but a very sixties-influenced pop song that takes an avant garde musical twist before ending. The incredibly hooky “Knee-Hi Wall” typifies the general up-attitude of the album, with delicious Lennon-like timing and wonderful Ringo-esque drumming – a delightfully accessible track on every level, and probably the most likely candidate for airplay.
With a band featuring Steve Oyola (vocals, guitar, banjo, organ, drums); Ben Stamper (vocals, guitar); John Mosloskie (vocals, mandolin, tack piano, Fender Rhodes piano, synthesizer); Vesper Stamper (vocals, piano, tack piano, Fender Rhodes piano, organ, percussion); Joshua Stamper (guitars, Mellotron, double bass) and the ubiquitous Sufjan Stevens (vocals, piano, percussion), this literal and musical family affair creates a gateway to a world of whimsical observations of life and surrealistic glimpses into memory that sometimes includes religious iconography side-by-side with the mundane.
“Holly Home?” allows us to listen in on what starts out as a conversational back-and-forth that Seinfeld might call 'a song about nothing' – although it illustrates how even the every-day has meaning, and the potential to be seen as 'found art'- as any art historian will tell you. Salvador Dali would grin at the lyrics, 'If a bird of prey were to ever land on your head / don't freak out,' from “Find Your Friend,” a song that also includes the phrase 'set your face like flint,' which immediately conjures up a Biblical passage concerning Christ, for those who 'have ears to hear'. The song is spacey and dreamy, taking a jazzy, more acoustic turn after a few minutes, ending in an unexpectedly sophisticated piano/drums/bass passage. The surprising “Consubstantiation” opens with big chords and the invitation to 'eat the flesh that's put before you,' in an unsentimental but powerful musical picture of the Communion meal.
Overall, you've gotta' love an album that has lyrics that mention Bruce Willis, William Shatner, and the Valley of Megiddo in the same song (“Honors”). Ben + Vesper don't take themselves too seriously, although this certainly is a project worthy of serious attention – as long as you don't forget to simply enjoy it for what it is: really good, creative, intelligent, Beatles-influenced music. There's harmony and melody all over the place, as well as some beautiful dissonance (check out “Cheer Up, Cheers!”).
Like all good albums, Honors might require a little more real listening before the soul of the project begins to sink into your musical pores. A casual play-through amongst friends might illicit some strange faces – this isn't pretty background music. This is good stuff, worthy of an investment of time.
It might even be art.