Review Summary: I hear Against Me! on the radio...and that's the way I like it.3 of 3 thought this review was well written
Many people take on the philosophy of “carpe diem” in relation to their everyday lives, living to the full even if their ideas may not always be positively received. Australian singer-songwriter Ben Lee is such a person. On a plane flight, he was in the midst of an obsession with Floridian fist-shakers Against Me!’s latest offering, New Wave
. Despite its angry tones and gritty political agenda suggesting otherwise, Lee saw the album as a pop masterpiece. He decided then and there to pay tribute to said masterpiece the only way he knew how- cover the entire album.
Yes, this is the same upbeat troubadour who gave us “Catch My Disease” a few years back. Certainly, you may be thinking, not the kind of person that would have any interest at all in Against Me!. Lee himself is perfectly aware of this, making fun of himself by placing the picture of a yawning kitten in the place of the roaring panther on the album cover. Despite the unusual circumstance of this release, however, the result is a surprising twist on the Against Me! sound, with clever reinterpretations of the ten excellent songs of New Wave
The first thing that is significantly noticeable about transition of these songs is the vocal delivery. Lee’s effeminate, almost scrawny tone is practically the polar opposite of Tom Gabel’s infuriated yelp. With this in mind, one could easily argue that Ben Lee softens the blow of the songs. Thankfully, this is generally not the case. The eloquence in which Lee conveys the lyrics assists in giving the stories behind the songs a different, more subtle context. “Thrash Unreal”, as an example, lifts the veil on the tragic, lonely protagonist by means of world-weary, placid vocals. In addition, its successor, “White People for Peace”, has its politics laid on the table in a very matter-of-fact and honest manner. The arrangements, too, are consistently creative and unique, especially given Lee’s minimalist approach to the recording. Vocals and acoustic guitar are accompanied here only by variations on clean electric guitar, basic percussion or programming, keyboards and, occasionally, bass guitar, or even an e-bow.
The best thing about what Ben has done with these songs is that they present a side of them that you may not have initially noticed about the originals. The title track becomes a Billy Bragg-esque folksy call to arms, “Stop!” is transformed into a bizarre percussive flamenco stomp, and “Americans Abroad” morphs from a shouty, electric rabble-rouser to a bluegrass throwback with overdubbed lo-fi electric guitar. Naturally, these rearrangements don’t always work to full effect, occasionally resulting in dulling of the song’s energy (see Lee’s vocals in “Stop!” or all of “The Ocean”, as an example). When Lee is on target, however, these are some of the best covers of recent years.
The highlight of Ben Lee Sings New Wave
is, coincidentally enough, the very same highlight of New Wave
itself- “Animal”. Distinctive bassline aside, Ben Lee has completely reworked the song to the point that is is practically unidentifiable. Lee’s interpretation of the song is far more calm, yet equally as poignant and emotional as Gabel’s bluesy megaphone belligerence and its accompanying guitar swagger. With piano and a distant electronic snare, the song has been stripped bare to centralise the lyrical themes of romantic loss, desperation and basic instincts. It sounds as if Lee connected with this song especially, and felt a need to cut to its core. On these terms, he has most certainly succeeded.
If you’re still unconvinced, you can rest assured this certainly isn’t as good as Against Me!’s exceptional original release. For what it’s worth, however, there is a lot here to assist its consideration as more than just a joke.
If you’re not a Ben Lee fan, then you’ll probably enjoy the original. If you didn’t like the original, maybe you’ll find some good in this. Who knows? Maybe by some bizarre chemical reaction, you’ll come to like both.