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CD Reviews: Ben Jelen
Ben Jelen: Give It All Away
May 2004
By: Corinne Ferraro
album cover of Ben Jelen's Give It All Away

Popular music for piano suffers an odd gender divide. Nothing inherent in the instrument or the sexes requires it--- but a pattern seems to have emerged, as artists struggle to maintain their identity amidst our culture's dismissive desire to categorize, well, everything. The segregation in the body of recordings for this particular instrument is remarkably consistent--- not merely in songwriting style, but particularly in performance and recording style. Pop recordings for piano are often identifiably masculine or feminine before a gender-specific voice even sings the first note. .

The instrument does lend itself to a melodic sound that perhaps has been simplistically identified as feminine. After all, it is difficult to play piano loudly and aggressively without being accused of playing it badly (or, at least, without nuance). We certainly do hear loud and aggressive piano-playing from men and indeed, it is often done well. However, as we reach the other end of the dynamic spectrum in piano pop from men, we reach the quiet songs, but often retain an element of aggressiveness. The material itself may not be aggressive, but a male pianist in the popular arena rarely relinquishes his heavy-handedness enough to cross over into real delicacy of performance style.

Of course, there are men who can and do defy this generalization--- see, for example, John Ondrasik of Five for Fighting, or Ben Folds's contemplative Autobiography of Reinhold Messner. In his debut album, Give It All Away, Ben Jelen joins that minority of men who build their songs around emotive, graceful piano playing. The album has a lush and richly-produced sound which never overshadows its compelling core: Jelen's evocative piano work. Indeed, Jelen's album is distinguished among these fine contemporaries in that, while he maintains standards of intelligence and originality, he also nails an accessible pop sound that runs cohesively through the entire album.

This is an unabashedly emotional album, built primarily around a series of love songs--- thoughtful and articulate love songs. Without whining, without oversimplifying, Jelen tells us in specific terms how it feels to be in love with this woman. Jelen's use of language is controlled and natural. His word choices always sit perfectly on the melody, and the lyrics are refreshingly free of pretense. These subtle but detailed choices ensure that Jelen's language never overshadows his content. Thus, undiluted emotion becomes the centerpiece of this album, and Jelen's style at the piano perfectly complements the themes of his songs. His piano lines are distinct, original, and romantic, immediately stirring up the requisite swell of passion to set the tone for his heartfelt songs.

Although Jelen has more than demonstrated his prowess as a songwriter, in typical major-label style, there are a few co-writes here. Most notably, two songs, Stay and Christine, are co-written and produced by the ubiquitous songwriting machine The Matrix. While these are pleasant songs, they are by far the least interesting tracks, and seem to have been plunked onto the album in a label's faithless attempt to ensure a hit single. To Jelen's credit, the stand-out tracks on the album (such as Rocks and Give It All Away), and the uplifting first single, Come On, are his own.

Jelen is an exceptionally good-looking man, which--- judging from the turnout at recent shows--- seems to have had the unfortunate result of his music being marketed primarily to teenage girls. I've heard the word "teenybopper" thrown around in reference to his fans. While I was the only one at his show with a wristband and a glass of merlot, I observed a group of young music fans deserving of more respect than that. Contrary to the flippant stereotype of teenage fans, Jelen's music brings together a group of young people who listen, and listen well. Their reaction is a testimony to the nature and quality of the music Jelen is creating, and that it deserves to find a wider, more age-inclusive audience.

A group written off as "teenyboppers" turns out to be filled with smart, attentive people. Emotional piano music turns out to be not just for girls. A brutally hot would-be Calvin Klein model turns out to be a sophisticated, interesting songwriter. All of which defy expectations. Jelen's album makes a significant contribution to the pop landscape, as he successfully blends the styles of both his male and female influences. The result is a moving, catchy, and earnest album that deserves to be heard in its own right, free of presumption.