Way back at the beginning of the year and my day started, as usual, with a trawl through my inbox when I discovered the link (cheers Jay) to a video entitled ‘You and Me’ by Australian singer-songwriter Ben Abraham. The video put together by the very clever people at Production Company Oh Yeah Wow is visually stunning, the set decoration / lighting in the final third really is a thing of beauty. The video perfectly complements the song and it really caught my attention. I had no clue who Ben Abraham was but I was keen to find out.
The road that leads to ‘Sirens’ is a long one as Ben started writing songs nearly a decade ago while working in a hospital but music was obviously in his DNA as his parents were Indonesian folk-pop stars with a huge following in Asia. Moving forward Ben felt an affinity with the songs of Sara Bareilles and was able to connect with her via Myspace (the times they are a changing) and Ben joined her on stage in Melbourne in 2011 (they performed a duet on the Springsteen classic ‘I’m On Fire’).
This all culminates in ‘Sirens’ which, in keeping with the aforementioned video, is also a thing of beauty, a selection of songs that deal with love, loss and all the things that relationships throw at us. Ben has readily admitted that his lyrics are earnest but they are also honest because that was where he found himself at the time. The album charts the evolution of a time period in his life.
The really interesting thing about ‘Sirens’ is the careful use of instrumentation, if you are expecting the standard singer with an acoustic guitar you’ll get that but you’ll get much more. Acoustic guitar is, not surprisingly, the anchor but the soundstage widens out dramatically with the use of percussion and a host of backing vocals. Abraham worked primarily with Jono Steer (his live mixer) and percussionist Leigh Fisher with local musicians from the Melbourne area added to the sessions and the result is spellbinding, emotional and real. You can still picture the songs being performed with just a guitar, which is the way any truly good song should be able to be performed.
‘Speak’ is an album highlight, a slow building ballad that showcases Abraham’s impressive vocal delivery and gentle guitar but as Abraham expands his vocal range an ethereal choir of voices rise up alongside tinkling piano, bubbling synths and glorious percussion. ‘Speak’ features the production work of Gotye best known for ‘Somebody That I Used To Know’ a massive hit back in 2011 who came in to arrange the voices.
If I had to pick a track that perfectly encapsulates the sonic approach Abraham and his team of musicians and producers have looked to achieve it might well be ‘She’. A lovely vocal and acoustic guitar part from Abraham over a percussive backing trap, a hint of banjo maybe, a host of backing vocals as keyboards swell and the bass rumbles below to add warmth. It’s a lovely combination of the acoustic and the electronic and sums up the album for me.
I mentioned Sara Bareilles earlier and she appears here on the co-written duet ‘This Is On Me’ with “experimental electronic producer” Tim Shiel helping out. With a gentle, mournful piano line opening the song the vocals of Abraham and Bareilles intertwine as they each take responsibility for the end of a relationship over another hauntingly effective electronic backdrop which unfortunately finishes far too soon. It really is difficult to pick highlights here as frankly this is a lean thirteen track release with absolutely no filler. Abraham can do the positive side of things when required and ‘I Belong to You’ accentuates this joyous positivity with the deceptively clever use of percussive handclaps giving the song energy. Abraham the vocalist is showcased as he really gets to let rip over the drum heavy backing on ‘Songbird’ while ‘To Love Someone’ has a haunting end-of-an-era / last post vibe that manages the almost impossible task of being both mournful and positive in equal measure.
Ben Abraham originally self-released ‘Sirens’ in Australia and I’m pleased to say that this very fine album will reach a wider audience now with a belated, but very welcome, UK release via Secretly Canadian on June 17th.