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Since his debut full-length album from 2008, Learning to Bend, Ben Sollee has established himself as a musician who isn’t afraid to lay it all on the line for his audiences, both emotionally and musically. Impossible to put into one genre, Sollee’s work is a unique blend of soul, jazz, and folk, combined with his own thoughtful and unique cello compositions; over the past several years, this original musical blend has garnered him wide-spread recognition, with fans eagerly anticipating his fourth full-length release, Half-Made Man. What they get is a pleasant surprise. Not only the signature sound that Sollee has developed since his first CD, but a little more. Sollee’s soul combined with the support of a fuller, richer sound: a full band.
In each of the three CDs preceding his most recent release, Half-Made Man, Sollee’s soulful vocals spell out his heartbreak, backed mostly by strings and his skillful cello playing. We see that still on Half-Made Man, but instead of relying on his cellist skills, Sollee has chosen to employ a full band on many of the tracks. We still get the soulful Sollee from years past, but now mixed with a richer, layered sound incorporating electric guitars, drums, and fiddles. With this album, Sollee is telling his fans that even though this is his fourth full-length CD, he isn’t afraid to shake things up, and he won’t be sticking to a formula.
Ben Sollee doesn’t play it safe.
Then again, how dangerous is it really to just add a few instruments here or there? Don’t play it off to be a minute detail; in Sollee’s case, the addition of the full band drastically changes his sound. It’s not better than his past work, it isn’t worse, it’s just different, and it shows that Sollee has the rare talent of being able to change his formula and still maintin his quality sound.
The opening track, “Whole Lot to Give,” starts off with the familiar Sollee strings before the drums come crashing in, holding a steady beat throughout the track. The result is a layered, rich musical accompaniment that sounds distinctly poppier than his previous work. But that isn’t to say the entire album is all pop —“Do It Yourself” features fiddles and has a more bluegrass sound.
On “Roam in the Dark” and “The Maestro,” we can hear the Ben Sollee from Inclusions and Learning to Bend surfacing, with quiet instruments taking a backseat as his vocals lament love gone wrong. “It’s nice to know, and be known, but it’s a natural thing to be forgotten,” he sings on “Roam in the Dark,” a raw and heartbreaking track that seems miles away from the powerful “Unfinished” track that follows it. “Unfinished” begins quietly until the electric guitars and drums join his cello to create an angrier, richer composition that sounds like it could be on an entirely different album than the track preceding it.
In fact, all of the tracks on Half-Made Man possess their own unique sound; each track explores a different facet of Sollee’s musical range, from the raging electric guitar solo on “The Pursuit of Happiness” to the cheerful chorus of “Do It Yourself.” The end result is a diverse mixture of tracks, spanning heavy songs about a broken heart to catchier, easy-going tracks, yet the album is still cohesive, with Sollee’s soul and unapologetic desire to try new things serving as the glue that holds the record together. The end result is an eclectic mix of sounds that both utilize and stray from Sollee’s signature cello and soulful vocals that is sure to please fans both new and old. It’s new, inspired, and still distinctly Ben Sollee.