Ben Sollee has a voice both offbeat and soulful, a rare and appealing combination, plus he has stellar instrumental and lyrical skills. However, his new “Half Made Man” doesn’t have those intangible moments that elevate the release from a solid album to a special one.
The native of Lexington, Ky., has a few missteps, most of them seemingly driven by ambition. For instance, his quirky delivery doesn’t suit the melodrama of the ballad “The Maestro,” and his unconventional cadence shifts — especially on “DIY,” “Unfinished” and “Get Off Your Knees” — lead to clunky passages.
Yet those seem like afterthoughts considering what he accomplishes on the genre-defying “Half Made Man,” a place where pop, folk, rock, jazz, blues, country, R&B and Americana intermingle at the behest of Sollee’s cello and notes from other musicians playing pedal steel, violin, upright bass and more. If Sollee is a half-made man, he could be a Frankenstein’s monster made from parts of Elvis Costello, Randy Newman, Bruce Springsteen and the guys from Tears for Fears.
There’s an organic, sunny feel in “The Healer” (featuring guest vocals by Abigail Washburn), modern pop-rockabilly in “DIY” and dusty soul in a “Pursuit of Happiness” that suggests joy comes at a price (“I want it as bad as you do, I just ain’t willing to take it from somebody else.”)
Thematically, Sollee swings from the intimate ballad “Roam in the Dark” (“Changing my ways to get away from the noise, ’cause I want to be here with you.”) to the electric political bent of “Get Off Your Knees” (“Here’s a towel for your bleeding heart, please get off my rug”). And fitting for a release that raises more issues than it solves, “Half Made Man” closes with, “When you figure it out, bring some lovin’ back to me.”
Sollee’s journey is consistently intriguing, and his lyrical notions and passionate creativity will keep listeners hanging around. But he comes up short of an obvious payoff, a track where it all comes together with a memorable, rewarding denouement.
At least “Half Made Man” is more than halfway there.
Rating: 3 stars (out of five)
© 2012, Knoxville News Sentinel Co.
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