Bending the Right Way

Learning to Bend (SonaBLAST! Records)
Ben Sollee

By Kevin Gibson

What in the world is going on in Louisville's music scene? Quite a lot, actually. True, Ben Sollee probably won't be in the Top 40 anytime soon - and I mean that in a good way.

Sollee is a young singer-songwriter and classically trained cellist who has made his name as a superior artist even while flying slightly under the radar. As in, he has worked extensively with avant-garde bluesman Otis Taylor, The Sparrow Quartet (featuring banjo-master Béla Fleck) and on the internationally known "Woodsongs Old Time Radio Hour." As in, he was named to NPR's 2007 Top Ten Unknown Artists of the Year, not a bad distinction when you're doing what Sollee is doing.

Describing just what he is doing could prove tricky, however, so bear with me. One might describe it as alternative folk, although when one gets to "How to See the Sun Rise," which is track two on his new disc, Learning to Bend, one hears soul - I mean, this song would make Marvin Gaye proud. And track three, "Bury Me With My Car," comes on with a Kentucky-fried bluegrass fiddle intro before fading into an acoustic pop chorus and then a pseudo-rock hoedown that, frankly, defies description.

In short, this is outstanding and truly original stuff. (See? Sollee's music is really tough to describe with mere words.)

The native Kentuckian clearly also is a thoughtful and intelligent young man; it starts with his politically-charged revelations in "A Few Honest Words" - "Our love of freedom / Holds a veil over our eyes / Rights that are given can be taken away" - and his rewrite of Sam Cooke's "A Change is Gonna Come."

Look also to "It's Not Impossible," which is an introspective confession of the emotional difficulties of being a male in our culture. It also intertwines banjo with a jazzy saxophone to once again create something immediately enjoyable and yet indescribable.

He may be at his best, though, with heartfelt ballads like "I Can't." This is a simple, yet gorgeous, confession that "I can't be your man," and contains a running theme with gems like "This ain't the play I thought we'd stage / These ain't the hills I hoped we'd roam / This ain't the sword pulled from the lake / Yours ain't the heart I want to break."

Good stuff. Really good stuff. (See? Words just don't get it done here.)

As his bio states, one of the key elements to his music is his positive worldview. Even when touching on sad topics, there is an underlying hopefulness and positive vibe that is undeniable. Sollee seems to be about simply finding a way - which is reflected in the album title.

According to his MySpace page, "It was the cat-poles around the lake at his grandfather's farm that inspired Ben Sollee's debut album Learning To Bend. The frailty of those awkward looking plants standing stoutly against winds that challenged even the strongest of nearby trees is an affecting metaphor for human struggle and perseverance. This idea is central to Learning to Bend."

OK, those are pretty good words. But here are the words with which I'll end this review: Buy this album. You won't regret it.

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