A spotty set of impassioned covers
Ben Lee has been exploring and experimenting for the entirety of his solo career. His insane discography includes a cover album of Against Me!’s entire fourth, full-length album, a collaborative album with Jessica Chapnik Kahn based on the pair’s experiences with ayahuasca, and even an adaptation of a Tom Robbins novel in the form of a musical. To say Lee’s knowledge of music and personal experience as a creator is vast would be an understatement. Unfortunately, on his most recent full-length project, Quarter Century Classix, Lee seems to have fallen into a rut where he is creatively limited to mostly acoustic and subdued reinterpretations of ’90s indie rock with few bold choices to speak of beyond the creators’ original work.
The primary issue with the project is that Lee tends to start with a few great ideas as the bases for songs, but then fails to expand enough upon those ideas to make a compelling cover (in most cases). Track three of the album, The Breeders jam, “Divine Hammer,” is a solid example. The instrumentation, build-up and female backing vocals on this song are all absolutely fantastic. Little accents like the handful of xylophone notes over the refrain help to keep the song interesting from start to finish. However, Lee’s unchanging delivery and stylistically limited vocal choices turn this song into a “what could’ve been” moment. This disappointment is followed by a sunny cover of Built to Spill’s excellent “Car.” Fortunately, “Car” is actually a great example of what Lee is still capable of creating. He manages to capture the brightness and nervous energy of the original while forgoing Built to Spill’s more rough recording style for a more calculated and twinkly sound that introduces a whole new dimension to the song (in a good way).
Later cuts on the album include the beautiful and longing “Brand New Love,” the powerful “My Noise,” and the much too lengthy and wholly unsatisfying conclusion, “Godsend.” Also, it feels odd to criticize sequencing on a covers album, but at the same time, it’s tough to ignore when there are clear issues. For example, the transition from “Divine Hammer” to “Car” is especially jarring. The warbling electronics at the end of “Divine Hammer” clash with “Car’s” much lighter instrumentation in a way that obnoxiously interrupts the listening experience. An experience that is already made difficult by some frustrating tracks certainly doesn’t need poor sequencing to further cloud the better and more memorable moments on the album.
Quarter Century Classix is plagued by inconsistency and made worse by its disappointingly consistent lack of experimentation. Lee never really finds his groove and fails to deliver more than a couple of solid tracks in a row on this project. However, those solid tracks manage to stand alone and make a strong impression, despite their more lacking neighbors on the tracklist. Lee wants to pay homage to the musicians that made him the artist he is now, and while he might not always do justice to this collection of classics, his passion for music as both a creator and listener comes through loud and clear. That might’ve been his only true intention with Quarter Century Classix.