by Hannah Ashcroft
Following Who Knows Jenny Jones? – an album detailing the celestial encounters of a shy Pitsmoor woman who returns with a flair for disco dancing – Lancashire natives, now Sheffield based, Mr Ben & The Bens, take a more down to earth approach to songwriting on Life Drawing – released this time on Bella Union.
Primarily the project of songwriter and multi-instrumentalist, Ben Hall, the album revolves around colourful portraits inspired by the Northern towns he has inhabited, although he confesses some elements may be accidentally introspective. ‘The idea with the title is that the songs are character sketches, and their stories coalesce in a place that has a bit of all the towns in the North of England I’ve lived in,’ Hall stated. ‘Bits of myself in the stories came out unintentionally, so I’d like it if the listener could find those semi-truths from the songs and place them into their own experiences.’
The album kicks off to an upbeat start with On The Beach – depicting a nostalgic tale of a seaside escapade. Whirling organs summon visions of old school promenades amongst the laid back guitar and breezy melodies. Followed by the dreamy How Do You Do, the second track features reoccurring environmental metaphors with an evident Belle & Sebastian influence, in both arrangement and production and is most similar to his earlier work – the charming Happy Shopper EP. Hall’s love of Scottish indie/pop group is also evident in Danny. Swelling into a more gritty tone, it’s the ‘rockiest’ track on the album, depicting an anonymous character’s longing for human connection.
The album is tied by a ‘cloudy thread of narrative’ – evident in song titles moonlighting as lyrics in other tracks and through shared themes. From spaced out, psychedelic lullaby, Astral Planes, to the saloon sounds of Faithful Hound and playful synth in Beast in the House – each track maintains a unique identity – bound by an array of influences and a distinct production style.
The Wind on Spittlehill is a refreshing, almost startling arrangement. Beginning with a Crosby, Stills & Nash-esque, three part harmony chorus, before taking an unexpected turn into modern, spoken word verses, it gives way to whimsical piano melody and accompanying synths. More traditional folk influences seep through Irish Rain, with exposed vocals, wistful melodies and fingerpicking acoustic evoking Nick Drake’s Pink Moon.
It certainly feels like a meticulously crafted record and after the previous, more experimental works, a little more exposed. Hall is a vivid storyteller and Life Drawing is an imaginative and cohesive body of work – uncovering lovingly told narratives, littered with memorable melodies and musical intricacies.
Secret Meeting score: 84
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