BEN & JASON Ten Songs About You (Go Beat)
Ben Parker and Jason Hazeley's third album is a smoother and less consciously clever-clever work than their last, "Emoticons". The music and lyrics might sound less distinctive on first hearing, but seem to have been designed to burrow into the listener's consciousness over successive listens, deftly managing to just about avoid the cloak of luxuriant blandness that might otherwise have suffocated the wit and energy their music needs. (Compare this with the last Prefab Sprout album, for example, which, although operating in vaguely similar territory, had all the get up and go of a comfy warm duvet.)
And when Ben & Jason are on form they can produce the kind of insidious melodies that you'll find humming without being sure exactly where you've heard them, for example the quietly glorious "Fingertipping" and "Dust", the sweet sadness of "Great Days", the string-driven "Let's Murder Vivaldi" or the jaunty pop of "The Wild Things" and "That Film With All The Kisses At The End", which sounds like The Divine Comedy might if Neil Hannon was actually a real person and not a figment of his own imagination. But for all this wholesome goodness there's something remote and detached about "Ten Songs About You" (which, naturally enough, actually contains eleven songs, the last being an untitled instrumental) that prevents me from enthusing madly about it. It doesn't really seem to have any soul: yes, it's real music made by real people, but it for all its carefully-hewn craftsmanship it doesn't seem to relate to any kind of human experience. It's, for the most part, lovely music that will capture your head but never invade your heart.BEN & JASON Emoticons (Go Beat)
The second Ben & Jason album, originally released in 1999, is a pleasant enough amble through the mindsets of its two creators. It sounds slightly more jagged and lively than last year's "Ten Songs About You", and is possibly a more memorable album because of it. There's certainly an exuberance here that's missing from their later work: the spirited, jangling "Widow's Walk" validates all those Nick Drake comparisons, whilst "Air Guitar", their biggest non-hit, is enjoyable enough, although it does teeter closer to 'clever-clever' than clever. But 13 tracks of Ben & Jason's music's continuous loveliness is enough to tax even the most patient listener of the sunniest disposition. "Emoticons" sags noticeably towards the end, as if Hazeley and Parker are also getting a bit tired and emotional. All of which tends to suggest that Ben & Jason have a cracking compilation in them, but a whole shelf full of their work might be a little excessive.
BEN & JASON/DELTA The Barfly, Cardiff 15 February 2002
The perennially underrated Delta are marvellous enough to have me trundling up the country to see them even in a supporting role to an act whose music I had never heard prior to scrabbling for a ticket. As further evidence of how humble some of our finest musicians are (following Stereolab's exit through the audience at the Clwb Ifor Bach gig reviewed in the last issue) Delta were actually standing behind me in the crowd prior to their performance tonight, something I only realised when I heard one of them say "We're waiting for Patrick" (a reference to Patrick Roberts, one of the two singing songwriting guitarist brothers that form the band's core) "and then we'll go on". You certainly wouldn't pick them out as the band from their attire, being as anti-rock star scruffy as anyone in the audience. Similarly, their equipment reeks of vintage junk shop charm: one of their amplifiers is propped up on an empty beer crate, and the start of proceedings is delayed whilst the other brother, Jason, exchanges a faulty guitar lead for one that works.
Delta played, by my reckoning, eight songs tonight, three of which I can pin down as part of their frequently fabulous back catalogue. "Could You" was their first major label single release, which snuck out at the tail end of last year to predictable acclaim from the Delta cognoscenti and blank indifference from just about everybody else. Not in the first team of their recorded output, "Could You" nevertheless delivers a good nine-tenths of the Delta kick, a slinky, insidious melody with a haunting Neil Young-esque "My doctor says this is nowhere" hookline relayed by Patrick, who looks unnervingly like Robert Carlyle's body double. He spits through the lyrics of "Elephant Man", possibly the weakest song on their astonishing debut album "Slippin' Out", with previously unheard venom, the band crashing slowly through the deceptively tricksy music around him. And, introduced by the angel-voiced Jason quite correctly as "a song off our last album", "Everybody" is a gorgeous, swooning thing, and as ever the lines "I got a home/I got a living/And it's alright" just destroy me. Simple, effective and beautiful, it summarises everything that's great about Delta, the way they speak the same post-Britpop language as dozens of other, more successful, bands, yet use it to say things of eloquence, intelligence and beauty that make even fellow serial sufferers like Shack and Doves, fabulous bands both, sound just a little bit clumsy. Truly, Delta can take you places that Starsailor's shameless looting of the Buckley family plot ain't ever going to go.
And they played some new material tonight too, presumably out on parole from their imminent second album. The songs that really snagged were something I shall call "Funny Looking Angels" (possibly inspired by Kevin Smith's cameo-fest "Dogma"?) in the absence of its proper title, whatever it may be, which was fabulous, full of Jason's choirboy crooning and the band's trademark scuffed optimism. And even better was "Survivor", a valedictory, stomping set-closer that literally tramples over any of Delta's supposed opposition: what it might lack in subtlety it all but makes up for with barrelling defiance, rolling downhill to a thundering conclusion that has drummer Bird (I assume) swinging from side to side as he smashes seven shades out of his kit.
That's it, and it's enough, or as enough as it gets until we're gifted with the opportunity to see Delta play the entirety of "Slippin' Out" (including Louis J. Clark's elaborate orchestral arrangements) to a packed hall of ardent admirers, and in the current climate of music and commerce (or music being commerce) that isn't going to occur anytime soon. In the meantime, Delta are great live, and at least some of their new material has the same instant appeal that makes "Slippin' Out" a classic album. Rejoice.
Ben & Jason are artists of an entirely different stripe altogether: you can tell this before they even arrive on stage, because they have roadies (Delta heft all their gear off themselves) to strategically position the towels and bottled water. Ben Parker makes an affably arrogant frontman, bounding around in a brown leather jacket as much as the tiny stage and his great height will allow, and providing a useful visual focus point for anybody under six feet (like its sister venue, Clwb Ifor Bach, The Barfly's low stage doesn't offer much consideration for the vertically-challenged concertgoer). His first action is to take a photo of the crowd, to be posted on the band's website. "That's our new show, hope you liked it, good night". Ha ha. But then they start to play, and for the first few songs at least their blend of Nick Drake-inspired folky melody and Prefab Sprout lyrical incisiveness is just what you need, especially when they open with the divine "Fingertipping", from their last album "Ten Songs About You". But and it's a big one Ben & Jason's music treads unsteadily along that very slim borderline that separates clever from clever-clever, and the essential similarity of their material means that they are perhaps overly-reliant on gimmicks to keep the audience's attention locked on. Later in the evening Parker offers to play one song requested from their back catalogue: an audience member shouts out for "You Shaped Hole", typically from the only Ben & Jason album I hadn't managed to cram in the two weeks since I bought my ticket, and their impromptu rendition, incorporating "most of" the string arrangement magicked up via Jason Hazeley's Oberheim, is great. But when they leave the stage for the first time there's no real massed desperation to see them return - which they do, to perform a few more songs including a fine rendition of their biggest non-hit, "Air Guitar". Ben & Jason's music is perfectly pleasant, enjoyable enough for short periods, but, like their albums, the live B&J experience is almost too much of a perfectly tolerable thing.