Wednesday, September 10, 2014

Music Review - Ben Shive - The Ill-Tempered Klavier

The Ill-Tempered Klavier by Ben Shive has been in rotation on my MP3 player for nearly a year. My two teen daughters also love these melodic world-weary gems. So yes, I'm overdue for a review.

For years Ben Shive was the right-hand man for Andrew Peterson, a man often called "The next Rich Mullins." I like the music of Peterson but only rarely does it's hook dig deep, unlike the music of Rich Mullins where the hooks pierced my soul with alarming regularity. This slightly-warmer-than-lukewarm attitude toward Peterson's music had the effect of my moseying over to Ben Shive's music instead of running. As was the case of Twisted Sister leading me to Alice Cooper and Yngwie Malmsteen leading me to Nicolo Paganini which led to the entire world of classical music, The Ill-Tempered Klavier stands as tall or taller than my favorite album by Andrew Peterson.

Klavier is his first album, an experiment and much-needed outlet. The songs are mostly piano-based light rock, often encouraging while being just a bit sad. There are Christian truths artfully expressed in some of the songs but mostly these are just darn good songs with a depth and intelligence rarely found in pop music. The mellotron flutes at the beginning of "Out of Tune" signal the listener that an adventure is at hand. Written in 3/4 this uplifting song has good movement, building with interesting instrumentation that calls out to God to "find the melody in me if You can." There's so much going on in this song, from orchestral bells to natty guitars to theramin-like sounds and layers of vocals but Shive never lets things get muddy or out of hand. As on the other songs on this album, the orchestration is never massive like a symphony but rather full yet quaint, like that found on Pet Sounds. A song of overcoming the hardships of this life with God's help, "Rise Up" begins quietly with piano and voice but when the shimmering guitars enter at 1:30 I found myself thinking of Magical Mystery Tour-era Beatles. Chuffing strings accompany a beat that becomes more pounding further down the road and my pulse quickens to match, realizing that this guy loves The Beatles as much as he does The Beach Boys. The romantic and upbeat "Do You Remember" is most certainly influenced by The Beach Boys with it's peppy 50s rock feel and nostalgic lyrics about proposing to his wife. For some reason the music of Rick Altizer comes to mind when hearing this song.

What is it about a solo piano that can sound so forelorn? Whatever it is, "4th of July" has that lonely feel. The light strings that hover above a tranquil lake of calm, eventually becoming a gush of sound, certainly add to the feel. As good as this song is, though, it's got nothing on "97", a brutally honest soft rock song about Ben's past that refuses to place blame. The lyrics begin with: "The year my brother went away / The song got sad / And I woke up one day / Feeling so funny I forgot to laugh / Like I was all up in my head / And no way out / And sad for nothing, just sad / Every day was down. / It happened overnight." As my daughter would say, "Don't ya just want to hug him?"

Ben has a knack for writing sweet yet honest love songs. Lyrics like "This year / I'm gonna love you better than last year" found in the 70s piano light rock song "New Year" lets out the secret that we don't always treat those we love as we should. "The Old Man" shakes things up by replacing the piano with strings and finger plucked acoustic guitar as Shive examines a wasted life with lines like "Seeds in packets never sown / The Oldsmobile he barely drove," ending with the warning "Unless the seed is sown / The flower hidden never opens." If I'm quoting too much it's only because it's rare that I find an album where the quality of the lyrics match that of the music... it's a double whammy, kids! How about trying these on for size: "Tell me why are we born with these souls inside / That burst and break us open?" Yes, "Nothing for the Ache" examines the futility of things to fill the void in each of us, something "You'll notice when you lie in bed awake / Feeling like you're falling." There's a bit of doo-wop here but also more Pet Sounds and a big ol' triple scoop of yearning. A final capper and then I'll shut up. "Binary Star" is an old-timey jaunty piano song about lonely Neville who is looking for love in a song which goes through a number of interesting changes in it's two minutes of life, although the song flows as naturally as life.

What's even better than an amazing album packed with melodic pop gems masterfully performed? How about this same album for free? Give it a few spins and then circle back and give the man his due. As for me, I'm finally heading to Noisetrade to pick up his second album!

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