Monday, March 07, 2016

Benji Hughes Is A Pink Hippo

One clueless critic called this an oil painting. Sigh.
Dedicated to Jan Audun Uretsky, 1960-Still Here
Concert companion, multi-talented artist, friend in fair weather and foul

Imagine you're drowning in a vast ocean. Nothing around - no boats, no land, no hope. Then, out of the corner of your eye, you spot a pool floatie, say a cute pink hippo. It's your only chance at survival but would you have too much (snort) dignity to grab on? After all, there's nothing like disaster to bring ourselves face to face with ourselves. And when confronted with myself, I met someone who hesitated - for the merest moment - to grab onto that blow-up toy. Unbelievable, right?

I'm talking about the moment about halfway through my first listen to Songs In The Key Of Animals by Benji Hughes. That's when Sugartree started playing, with its absurdly exuberant "Boom boom boom boom shaka laka" chorus. No, I thought, that's really too much. Not having it. Of course that was after Shark Attack!!!!!!!!!!!, with its screaming females, and the ridiculous declarations of Girls Love Shoes ("We hold these truths to be self-evident: not all shoes are created equal."). I had also been told that life was like a peacock party. I almost turned the thing off. Who the hell was Benji Hughes anyway?

But I kept listening, and I kept coming back day after day until I found my grip on Benji's pink hippo tightening. What first seemed a simplistic and silly exercise began to move into the realm of the deceptively simple and the sheerly joyous. Such is his skill with an instant-impact melody that I wasn't entirely surprised to learn that Hughes has kept the lights on by writing jingles for clients like Verizon, GE and Captain Morgan. But I was surprised to find that he had been in a band called Muscadine with none other than Jonathan Wilson back in the late 90's. So he's got some deep roots, including those planted on A Love Extreme, his sprawling and somewhat unformed debut from 2008.

Animals was recorded over two years with a cast of usual suspects from records by Father John Misty and Wilson, along with several artists who have solid careers on their own, like Meshell Ndegeocello, Eleni Mandell and King Khan. This gives the album a party atmosphere and a sense of collective effort, with Benji's baritone rasp often shadowed by two or three female vocalists. Sometimes he even magnanimously lets them take the lead, but the disco-glam-Nilsson-melancholy point of view is all his. 

While the album often uses irrational exuberance to chase back the dark, Hughes is unafraid of delving right into the wistful mystic, never more so than on the instrumental Song For Nancy. Other critics have complained that there is nothing to it, but I say it's the perfect soundtrack for when you just can't take another thing happening in your life. And for those who would complain that Hughes is too repetitive, I would point them to Marc Bolan who answered similar gripes by saying, "Repetition comes into my songs a lot because I think my lyrics are so obscure that they need to be hammered home." In the end, I envy those writers who have put this album down. After all, you wouldn't grab that pink hippo unless you really needed it, so I guess everything's going alright in their lives. Lucky them.

I could go on about the grooves and the textures or pontificate about lyrics like these, from ? Take You Home, the perfect closing-time closing track: "When it's wintertime, and you wish it was still fall/When you wanna leave, and there ain't no leaves at all/You wanna get lost in the woods but there ain't no trees that tall..." but I think I'll just leave it here. If you're drowning, trust me, you'll need this pink hippo.

Benji Hughes will be at Rough Trade on March 16th (and so will I) and hopefully at another location near you. In the meantime, in addition to digging the album, give a listen to Songs In The Key Of Hughes, a playlist of music by fellow travelers alongside songs that popped into my head while listening to his record.

You may also enjoy:
Play Misty For Me
Ambition: Not A Four Letter Word

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