STRONG START Benjamin Burgess.
His press materials tell me the young Benjamin Burgess is "uniquely compassionate." I'm not sure if he's one of those guys who's loath to step outside for fearing of killing bugs, but he certainly gives every song his all on his debut full-length, Skeleton Forms. He works hard on providing nuance and showing commitment, enough to draw comparisons to Ben Harper's quieter work. His voice has some husk and body, and when it breaks and crackles it can be endearing.
On the title and opening track, he puts together a nice arc of delivery, starting spare with his acoustic guitar, building to the middle where a nice transition adds piano and percussion, and then sliding in some organ in the finish, all while riding a central phrase that may or may not make sense: "When we stay up late, we give the circus a tent."
If only this kind of attention to dynamics carried through the entire album. There are songs here — "Eve of the Adam," "Sleep Sour," "Bare Bones" — where there just isn't quite enough going on, Burgess's vocals well delivered, and the lyrics interestingly written (the kid's verbose), but with not enough of a chorus to grab onto and not enough going on instrumentally to make any part of the song stand out. You can fast-forward or rewind to any part of the tune and not be able to tell where you are.
I made a similar comment on Pete Kilpatrick's record: Burgess needs to let go of some of his songs, allow the instrumental breaks to breathe, to realize there's more to his writing than his vocals.
Which isn't to say he isn't a very smart and attractive talent. His phrasing is very precise and often unique, and his duet with Jennifer Brewer on "Old Strings" is terrific (I know my love for duets is getting cliché at this point, but seriously), taking the bridge for himself: "A man without a face/you are the best thing that I got ... life would be too long without you."
In honor of Phish this week, I'll mention that this reminds me of their best love song: "When you're there, I sleep lengthwise/And when you're gone, I sleep diagonal in my bed."
For a first go-round, there's plenty here to make you want more. It's the rare songwriter anymore who can make you think with truly original ways of saying things. Take this chorus from "Eve": "You will share the reddest leaves from home/As pretty as they are/It's the bark I love to see you boast."
Burgess just might be the kind of performer where you'll want to say you got in on the ground floor.
SKELETON FORMS | Released by Benjamin Burgess | with Adam and the Waxmen + Dominic and the Lucid + Christian Cuff + Darell Foster | at the Big Easy, in Portland | Dec 5 | and with Eric Bettencourt + Lady Lamb the Beekeeper + Jesse Pilgrim | at the Big Easy, in Portland, all ages | Dec 6 |www.myspace.com/benjaminburgess