If there’s anything worse than being a child star, it’s being a child cult hero--a kid who’s seized upon by hipsters and tastemakers because of some blend of precocity and quirkiness, only to be cast aside once legal drinking age comes along. Most of these folks either flame out big time or--if they’re lucky, wind up getting a degree in electrical engineering or some such discipline.
And then there are the Ben Lees of the world.
The Aussie was hailed as a savant by connoisseurs of avant-pop when he emerged as the 14-year-old leader of Noise Addict, a band that was never quite as aggressive as that name might indicate, but which managed to turn up the feedback to an extent that warmed the hearts of many a Sonic Youth fan. As he aged, however, he began to take on a mellower, more affable bearing, one that reaches its zenith on this disc, a sun-dappled collection that navigates a middle ground between Brian Wilson’s “teenage symphonies to God” and Lindsay Buckingham’s agreeably wasted West Coast popcraft.
Ripe is jam-packed with choruses that stick in the brain long after the CD returns to its place on the shelf, some of them (like the impeccably anthemic, new-wave tinged “Sex Without Love”) are pure lighter-igniting arena-rock, while others (the plaintive “Love Me Like the World Is Ending”) trigger the cuddle-by-the-fire impulse with ease. Lee’s voice, a homespun, boy-next-door tenor, has a beckoning quality that’s hard to resist, but the disc’s real charm lies in the guitar tricks he pulls once he has a listener up-close and personal.
The witty “What Would Jay-Z Do?,” for instance, finds him entwining his brain-twisting wordplay in a languid lasso of J-185, while “Numb” finds him pumping up the volume a whit in order to spar with the horns that carry the tune’s chorus. He’s attentive to detail in his playing, sticking close to the classic three-chord punk structures on which he cut his teeth, but tossing a Dadd9 in here and there for good measure--an appropriate tack for a guy who told his audience, a decade or so back, “Well my guitar is love /And my guitar's all I need /And my guitar's so special /Cause it plays the songs--not me.”
Though these days he primarily plays Gibson Acoustic's J-185, here's a very young Ben Lee, with his first Gibson Les Paul!