Shive Arrives: A Song by Song Commentary on The Ill-Tempered Klavier

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One listen to Ben Shive’s debut The Ill-Tempered Klavier will provide obvious evidence of why this young man has secured the respect of peers and colleagues on the inside of the Nashville music community. With The Ill-Tempered Klavier, Shive’s skills are now planted in the public garden.

benshivecover.jpgHeretofore, there have been unsubtle hints: Andrew Osenga pronouncing Shive as his favorite songwriter, Andrew Peterson naming him as producer of The Far Country, his ubiquitous presence as a studio piano ace on a wide range of mainstream CCM records, Sara Groves choosing him to produce her next record, and the majestic arranging of the strings for Andrew Peterson’s Behold the Lamb of God, The True Tall Tale of the Coming of Christ. Like a fast growing wildflower, Shive seems to pop up everywhere, though always in the background. Now, the secret is out. Raise the curtain on Ben Shive.

The Ill-Tempered Klavier is an eclectic project, drawing spice from elements of cabaret and Tin Pan Alley, drama of show tunes, elements of classical, electronica, tasty riffs from the 60s, and ear candy of 80s and 90s pop. This is not a project with a repetitive, homogenous, musical theme. Listening to these songs is like opening multiple presents from a caring and thoughtful shopper, one that knows you and takes the time to find exquisite gifts which inspire surprise. These are gifts that will not be returned. Long after the wrapping and bows are discarded, these rare gifts will be held, worn, viewed, and played for years to come.

One might expect a debut project to be fraught with synthetic footprints. Attempting to put their best artistic foot forward, new artists may lack the confidence and composure to be authentic. Vocal gymnastics and over-production can be symptoms of this artificial embellishing. Enter Ben Shive, the seasoned neophyte. On this collection of songs, we will not find over-singing or over-production. Shive simply does what he can do. As it turns out, what he can do is considerable.

Let’s look at the songs:

1. “A Name, A Name, A Name” – Lyrically reminscent of the Beatles’s “Eleanor Rigby” or even “Nowhere Man,” this song captures the essence of loneliness laced with dispair. The day starts joyfully, with major chords and a sing-songy vibe. But it doesn’t take long for the crush of people and daily routines to take the breath out of the protagonist’s soul. Like Mark Heard’s “Strong Hand of Love,” there’s quiet, unnamed Redemption “hidden in the shadows.” Unpredictably, despite this realization, the music is dominated by minor chords, which is the brain of this song. The realization of Truth, that all will someday be made good and right, doesn’t always make the birds sing and the sun shine in the temporal world in which we live. The residue of pain sometimes clings like a nasty wood tick, sucking the blood from our insides. This one will not be played on the radio.

2. “Out of Tune” – There’s a scene from Sideways that I’ll never forget in which Virginia Madsen’s character Maya asks Paul Giamatti’s character Miles why he is so into Pinot, to which he replies,

Uh, I don’t know, I don’t know. Um, it’s a hard grape to grow, as you know. Right? It’s uh, it’s thin-skinned, temperamental, ripens early. It’s, you know, it’s not a survivor like Cabernet, which can just grow anywhere and uh, thrive even when it’s neglected. No, Pinot needs constant care and attention. You know? And in fact it can only grow in these really specific, little, tucked away corners of the world. And, and only the most patient and nurturing of growers can do it, really. Only somebody who really takes the time to understand Pinot’s potential can then coax it into its fullest expression. Then, I mean, oh its flavors, they’re just the most haunting and brilliant and thrilling and subtle and ancient on the planet.”

At some point, it becomes clear the Miles isn’t talking only about wine. I don’t have the intellectual brain power to explain why this kind of communication is attractive, but I think it has something to do with getting closer to the truth than more linear dialogue otherwise might. There’s potential to see and understand better, particularly on an emotional plane. Similarly, “Out of Tune” isn’t just about a piano. Maybe that’s obvious, maybe it isn’t, but it’s the kind of songwriting that lifts this debut effort from what could have been simple, to simply beautiful.

“If you can take a good dissonance like a man,” is a great line because it wholly captures a key aspect of best appreciating this album of songs, embracing the dissonance of conflict.

3. “Rise Up” – This is probably the best song on the project. It’s beauty is in its simplicity. With piano playing similar to that on Eric Peter’s “Tomorrow” from Scarce, with such powerful words, the music shouldn’t be very busy and it isn’t. Lyrically, it’s reminiscent of David Wilcox’s “Show the Way” or “Rise.” It provides a deep kind of empathetic understanding of a certain human condition we all encounter sometimes. I receive intense joy, spawned by recognizing my condition in song. My deep need to be understood is–in this moment in song–satisfied. Isn’t that the best compliment we can provide any songwriter?

4. “Do You Remember” – The first of the pop songs on this collection. Of all things, it’s a love song. The Beach Boys-like vocals are brilliant. Flat out brilliant. Look for the one glorious vocal moment at about 2:17 into the song when The Beach Boys hand the BGV baton to fused harmonies from the Turtles (listen to the “ba, ba, bas” in “Happy Together“) and the Mamas and the Papas (listen for the “do, do, dos” in “I Call Your Name“). I don’t know how much arranging credit we can give Eric Peters on this track, but Shive himself turns the spotlight on Peters in the credits. Knowing Peters intimate familiarity with 60s pop music, it’s no surprise.

5. “She is the Rising Sun” – Like most of the other songs, the lyrics in this tune fit together like a master carpenter measured, cut, trimmed, and finished the edges. The consistent cosmic theme provides a pretty canvas from which to paint. Will Sayles muted drums provide a sparse, uneven heartbeat which finds its stride after the narrator is no longer, “lost in space.”

6. “4th of July” – Shive follows the lead of the best songwriters, using a routine or less majestic event to illustrate something more majestic. The string arrangement on this track is a thing of sheer beauty. The first star of the evening; Does it have a name?

7. “97” – This is the kind of song that will probably have universal application, though it refers to a specific event in Shive’s young life. Few reading this will be old enough to remember “Something’s Wrong With Me,” a pop song from the 70s, but Shive/Cason Cooley make use of a synth-sound used in that song (though maybe it was just a processed guitar or piano back then), which to me gives it a bit of a retro feel. When the important people in our lives leave, things change. Whether it be a divorce, college, or death, things will never be the same.

8. “New Year” – This is an unapolegetic 80s pop song. It’s WONDERFUL. It’s Ben Shive channeling Christopher Cross. Can I come clean? I was a Christopher Cross fan, and Mr. Shive utterly captures the essence of this hitmeister here. I like this song so much that I’ve routinely visited Shive’s myspace page since it was posted to shoot-up a dose of “New Year.” The tremulous effect at 1:29 is like adding a few red pepper flakes to an already delicious recipe; it just makes things pop. Ben’s vocal double-tracking–if that’s what it is–makes this track sound big and lush. From first hearing the rough cut of the song, I’ve always liked the lines, “It’s a new scene in an old play,” and “It’s a new line in an old song.” “She just smiles like, what has got into you,” is amazingly evocative, similar to Andrew Peterson’s, “And he smiled awhile at something in his mind,” from “Love Enough.” I just say to myself, “That’s perfect!” With all of the lyrical richness in these songs, we must forgive Ben for his one lyrical misstep, rhyming “heart” and “start.” Despite that, this one should be played on the radio.

9. “The Old Man” – This one gets the Purple Ribbon for “Saddest Song.” Not sad as in bad, but sad as in sad. Really sad. How much sadder can it get than a lifetime of unrequited love? Think of A Christmas Carol or AP’s The Coral Castle or maybe your own personal history. Or consider what it might be like if your perfect love was extended to all, with only a small percentage responding; even less responding with passion. Is that really Ben finger-picking the acoustic guitar? Dang. Nice job, Ben. Listen to the (here’s that word again) dissonance with the phrase, “But she could not return his love.” Masterful.

10. “Nothing for the Ache” – If it’s possible for a song to stand out on this project, this one does. It’s clearly one of the best on in the collection. Beach Boy harmonies punctuate and reinforce some of the best lines in this tune. Let me tell you, it can’t be easy to construct harmonies like that without mounds of cheese later clogging up the laser of the listener’s CD player. But rather than the “Fun, Fun, Fun” variety, these are the melancholy kind. “There’s nothing for the ache.” I think of the movie Magnolia and Jason Robards dying Earl Partridge:

I loved her so. And she knew what I did. She knew all the ******* stupid things I’d done. But the love… was stronger than anything you can think of. The ******* regret. The ******* regret! Oh, and I’ll die. Now I’ll die, and I’ll tell you what… the biggest regret of my life… I let my love go. What did I do? I’m sixty-five years old. And I’m ashamed. A million years ago… the ******* regret and guilt, these things, don’t ever let anyone ever say to you you shouldn’t regret anything. Don’t do that. Don’t! You regret what you ******* want! Use that. Use that. Use that regret for anything, any way you want. You can use it, OK? Oh, God. This is a long way to go with no punch. A little moral story, I say… Love. Love. Love. This ******* life… oh, it’s so ******* hard. So long. Life ain’t short, it’s long. It’s long, ******* it. *******. What did I do? What did I do? What did I do? What did I do? Phil. Phil, help me. What did I do?

There’s a price to pay for breaking the Law. Without redemption, without forgiveness, the scabs and scars would ooze and fester.

11. “Binary Star” – This one puts me in a different time and place, like a classic old movie or good book. It deals with the twist of fate in a fun way. It’s like an alloy of a show tune and a Tin Pan Alley tune. Ironically, though some of the other songs in this collection seem stylistically characteristic of Andrew Peterson lyrics, this one–for which he indeed wrote the lyrics–doesn’t particularly seem so. It’s a departure, a fun, attractive style different than any Peterson lyric I can immediately recall. Placing this song after “Nothing for the Ache” was a stroke of good judgment. Something light-hearted is needed at that point.

12. “Wear Your Wedding Dress” – Musically, this one also hearkens back to an earlier time with a starring role for the harmonium.

Bonus Tracks (only available with the pre-order of the record–sorry!):

1. “On the Night That You Were Born” – Though sparsely produced–with voice and piano–this “bonus track” meshes perfectly with the rest of the songs on The Ill-Tempered Klavier. It’s tempo and tone introspectively capture the sublime transformation that accompanies the birth of a child. The miracle of birth is matched by the supernatural change that concurrently occurs within parents (“it was me that you delivered, your Father old and worn”). Ben’s voice seems close to breaking as he sings the line “kissed your cheek.” It’s this kind of human touch which infuses these songs with a stirring punch made powerful by the raw emotional truth.

2. “The Old Man, Strings and Clocks” – This is a track that ought to find a home somewhere on a movie score. It’s beautiful. I didn’t notice the clocks on the original track. What a fine musical touch for such a song, in which the passage of time is critical to full appreciation of the story.

3. “Going, Going, Gone” – I could go for a whole album of this stuff.

The Ill-Tempered Klavier is a work that is full of surprises. There isn’t one of us who are familar with Ben Shive’s work that would doubt his skills. Still, I for one am flabbergasted by this freshman release. It shows judgment and discretion beyond his years. His choices, and those of his co-producer Cason Cooley demonstrate restraint, good taste, and a thoughtful creative spirit. On the other hand, Ben took edgy risks; creating transparently, meshing genres, and biggest of all, executing the production authentically.


18 Comments

  1. Russ Ramsey

    @russramsey

    Something has happened here in the Rabbit Room and among the Square Pegs and the concentric communities rippling out from there which has produced in me such a deep sense of gratitude for Ben. So much of the music I love, and I mean really love, is what it is because Ben has logged hours tinkering away with it, adding texture, tweaking lines, arranging strings and creating sonic landscapes which I believe will stand up against the scrutiny of time.

    So now to have this brand new, and in many ways very different, record from Mr. Shive is a gift. I love it! My wife said of it the other day, “I think it is going to become one of those records that is like an old friend you keep going back to years down the road, you know. Like you’ll hear it a year from now and think, ‘Yeah. Man, I love this record.'”

    Ben, thanks for all you do. Thanks for serving so faithfully to help develop and deliver so much of the music this Rabbit Room community shares in common. And thank you for giving us this work of your own. You have been generous with your life, and with your talents. May the Lord multiply them.

  2. Ron Davis

    Thanks for writing that, because I’ve failed about 30 times already to write a review for this album that accurately describes its awesomeness.

  3. Jim A

    Nice review Curt! I must admit when I first saw the title, I thought it might be Ben posting some insight into the origins of some of the songs. Particularly ’97 which is haunting in the way a train wreck can be haunting. You sorta want the details. Things really get confusing when a little girl is introduced into the song towards the end when all along you were thinking it was about his brother. But the words he uses are just enough to make you feel their pain and lostness. Much like Goodgame’s “She’s gone forever” (on an aside, the line “now I’m speaking in a language no one knows, and I’m sleeping on a pillow of her clothes” has to be the saddest lyric I’ve ever heard and I can’t seem to listen to it enough.)
    And Curt, I must agree with you that Rise Up may be the best song on this album. There’s a huge moment of joy in the way he sings the word Crush in the line “the king of love will Crush them in the end” don’t you think? I mean, he could have picked a number of different words there but that just evokes all kinds of emotions that no other word would really fit there.
    Final thought here Curt, I really like the way you described each track as a different present or gift. At first, the multiple styles might throw you (and might make some think it’s the kind of album a career Background vocalist might make) but I’ve found it brings something fresh to each song while tying a theme around the concepts of love, loss, and thin-skinned ill-tempered humanity.

  4. Aaron Roughton

    I listen to Do You Remember over and over again just for the BGV’s.

    The entire album is great, but I love that song and the vocal work. Outstanding job Ben and Eric.

  5. Matt Algren

    There are so many nuggets of unusual goodness throughout this album. The I am…‘s in She Is The Rising Sun, the empty line in , Ben singing along with the strings in , the out of tune piano in Wear Your Wedding Dress (not to mention the Fisher Price sampling on that one). He even got me to dance in my car to Do You Remember. Okay, so that’s not hard to do, but still, it’s a song that I don’t connect to on a personal level and he got me to care about it. Bravo.

    The best nugget, though, is that the album works so well together. The songs without being literally connected still link somehow, making the whole better than its parts. I was listening to the album again last night and just had to shake my head and said, “This is such a good album.”

    My review of The Ill-Tempered Klavier is over here.

    (Note to The Proprietor, please remove the link if I’m overstepping. Gracias)

  6. Eric Peters

    @ericpeters

    I can’t remember an album so rich, so innocent (in a good way), so nostalgic (again, I mean this in the best of ways), so gripping, so welcoming. It’s got me holding back tears as I am so proud of Ben as an artist in the way his music is delicately extracting the good and noble things in me so I can hold them up, observe them like diamonds, remember their value, and then return them to the very darkest places in my heart so they will be light there. I am comfortably sad listening to these songs.

    That’s what this album does to me.

  7. Jonah G.

    I, too, love this album. Curt, this is a great “review” of the album. You capture it quite well, and describe it just like I wish I could. Despite purchasing 2 new albums last night (Wall-E soundtrack and Downhere’s “Thunder After Lightning” . . . which are great albums), after reading your review, I find myself torn. It really makes me want to listen to Ben’s album for like the 100th time, because it’s just that good . . . but I’d almost feel like I’m cheating on my new purchases . . . aw . . . what the heck ??!!!. . . It’s time for some more “Klavier” (is it me, or does that sound like some sort of fancy cheese or something? . . . hehe!) . . . I just can’t stay away!

  8. Bret Welstead

    Great review, Curt! I’ve had this album running in my car almost non-stop since I downloaded it. It is truly great music, and there are a few tunes that I’m drawn to especially.

    “4th of July” is beautifully arranged: piano crescendos and melodic movements matching the fireworks described in the lyrics; contrast of the momentary to the eternal; percussion used to illustrated the explosions in the sky; strings that sing and send my head reeling.

    “Rise Up” is hope. I could listen to this one over and over.

    I love the lyrics to “On The Night That You Were Born.” They seem so carefully written, capturing the delicate and precious first moments of life. And, Curt, while you mentioned the line “it was me that you delivered, your father old and worn,” the line that sets this one up in the previous verse is “and you finally were delivered, our baby new and warm.” I love the interplay between the two.

    My favorite, though, must be “She Is The Rising Sun.” Every instrument adds just the right amount to the arrangement, creating a wonderful tapestry to set the scene for the lyrics. Incredible love song.

    Thanks for the review, Curt. It’s great to read your thoughts on one of my new favorites.

  9. Peter B

    “Do you see a man skilled in his work? He will stand before kings; he will not stand before obscure men.”

    Curt, I’ll echo what everyone else has said; thanks for putting this into words.

    Myself, I couldn’t understand why I was so darn excited about this album. When I got to the point where I could download it, I was literally grinning and I couldn’t shut it down.

    I suppose even then I knew something of what I was about to receive.

    That “she just smiles like ‘what has got into you'” line is priceless. I want to love my wife that way.

    The first bonus track works fantastically for me, and I now have a special song for each of my children (Peterson and Goodgame each gave me one for a daughter on Slugs).

    Rise Up is indeed unmitigated joy. Do You Remember is one of those songs that causes me — self-conscious me — to ignore my reflection in the bus window (as Ben might say) and start moving in my desk chair in front of my computer, with my back the rest of the office and no idea if anyone thinks I’m nuts. I can’t help it.

    So many jewels, so little time. I need to burn this so I can play it in the car.

    Again, Ben… thank you for sharing this.

  10. david

    i think ‘Out of Tune’ is lyrically on par with AP’s ‘Loose Change,’ but in a different place musically.

    i remember when AP played that at the college i worked for, during a chapel… he basically had to spell out the metaphor of the song as he was playing, with his oh-so-appropo remarks between lines, but it was helpful for those who were only casually listening.

    ‘Out of Tune’ was great as a casual listen (i don’t think we have any casual listeners in the RR…) , but when i listened to the album the first time i was sitting still, reading the .pdf (not as fun as having textured paper in my hand) as the music played. Reading the metaphor while listening made it so much more powerful, and i suspect that if Ben were to play at that college, he’d have to throw in some remarks to keep the casual listeners focused…

    my favorite song for the time being.

  11. Kory

    My favorite moment in the whole album, without doubt, is in 4th of July where Ben sings “Yeah…”

    This moment is like a culmination of every emotion I’ve ever experienced while watching the many, man-made spectacles we all tend to lose ourselves in. It’s almost as if he’s saying ‘this is simply how it is going to be, friends, and it is so beautiful.’ … “Yeah.”

    Thank you for this.

  12. Jacob Tilton

    All the reviews yesterday made me go ahead and finally purchase the album. It’s amazing how when you experience something great and new you immediately think of who you can share it with. I have been a faithful witness today to this record.

    I echo the previous love for “Out of Tune”. I love the instrumentation and the way that those chords/keys cycle around and come back again puts a big ol’ grin on my face trying to keep up.

    But it was “Nothing for the Ache” that gave me the goose-bumps this morning. Tolkien’s idea of a “eucatastrophe” has come up in the RR before. This is a great example of the idea of an unexpected turn of good. So many good songs are like this. I think it resonates so well with us because it reflects so much of the blessed irony in scripture.

    Thanks Ben for the blessing of your work.

  13. Chris P

    I haven’t gotten as much good music in any time period as I have in the past few days. I love the Rabbit Room store. I was admittedly skeptical of this album, but I’m the kind of person who likes to be different and if something is liked by several people in an enclosed area, I try to avoid it like the plague.
    But I’m really glad that I finally broke down and got this. (finally? I guess it’s only been a few days.) I’m not the kind of person who will give platitudinous compliments, I’m a harsh critic, and that is only amplified by reading over and over that something is musically and lyrically impressive. And with that I will say that I don’t think I’ve been as moved by any other album on my first listen-through as I was when I sat down and listened to Mr. Shive’s album. It’s definitely on it’s way to a place of respect and affection in my heart and mind.
    ’97 is by far my initial favorite. I was so struck by this song, I feel like it could be about the past year for me. It’s a challenging listen for me, but a good reminder that we are not alone even in the hardest time.
    I also love Rise Up. It’s so full of realistic and true hope.
    I really believe that God was honored by your hard work and the beautiful artistry of this album, and I want to sincerely thank you for this, Ben. I hope there is more to come.

  14. Jake

    Curt, why is it considered a mis-step rhyming heart and start? I am interested in why you think that? Great record though. I will come back to it often. Great work Ben!

  15. Curt McLey

    @curtmcley

    Jake wrote:

    Curt, why is it considered a mis-step rhyming heart and start?

    Jake, so sorry it has taken me such a long time to answer your question. I didn’t notice it until now. I like to see to what extent, if any, my early impressions of a particular work may have changed. So, I wanted to read the song-by-song post of Ben’s record, which is how I found your question tonight.

    First, I am unqualified to answer your question, but since I spouted an opinion, it would be a little chicken-hearted to duck and cover. “Heart” and “start” just seem like an easy rhyme, like it’s one of the first rhymes that might pop into a songwriter’s head (not that an “easy rhyme” is always a bad rhyme). Since most songwriters and wanna-be songwriters—pretty early on—feel they must write a love song, that “heart” word probably comes up quickly. “Start” is simply a big, fat, easy target, or so it seems to me.

    In light of how insanely good Ben’s effort was on this project, it’s a pretty trivial criticism, but I felt my praise was so effusive that I had to muster at least one less than complimentary comment.

  16. Sarah Pearson

    I’m thrilled to learn that Ben Shive will be producing Sara Groves’ next album. Is it possible to improve her sound? If anyone can, Ben Shive will achieve it.

    Having spent the morning letting all of my friends on FB, who care about good music, know about Ben Shive’s album, The Ill-Tempered Klavier, I’m excited to see where it will continue on from here. Maybe one day, true talent will change the face of [Christian] radio.

  17. Joshua Kemper

    Thanks for crushing the souls of us unfortunate ones who couldn’t get the bonus tracks. Just kidding. Great review. Found myself saying “yeah” a lot. This album has moved me deeply in a way that previously only AP’s works had. The honesty and expression of things that so many people just want to forget triggers something in me – like a release of pains that I had suppressed and forgotten. I think real intimacy with the all-knowing God requires this kind of honesty.

  18. Robert Berman

    This is one of my favorite albums of the last ten years. I’d put it up against Sufjan, Sara Groves, Indigo Girls… pick your favorite singer/songwriter. One comment: “New Year” does sound like an 80s song, but it’s not by Christopher Cross. It’s “Last Christmas” by Wham!

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