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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.
Heretofore, 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.