- Ben Patton, Meaning What
(Self-released, CD, digital)
Ben Patton is a prodigiously talented young man. The Vermont native is one of those endlessly hyphenated types — singer-songwriter, multi-instrumentalist, writer-illustrator, arranger-producer — all of it stubbornly self-taught. His latest — and eighth! — solo LP, Meaning What, is a peak moment in his catalog so far.
The album opens with "Maybe I Live to Make You Happy," a goosebump-inducing wash of vocal harmony work. That title is no sardonic joke: Patton has dedicated his life to perfection in pop music. This is an album of love songs, earnest optimism and catchy hooks. His songs are unabashedly sentimental but too sly ever to be corny. (This is the same guy who titled a song "I Think My Girlfriend's Been Seeing Cole Porter.")
It's something special how Patton is able to balance the slightly broken intimacy of the home demo with the multi-track, orchestrated ambition of the albums that hypnotized him as a kid. When he says he was studying the Beatles and the Beach Boys, he really means it. When you can hear rough edges in his work, it's because he wanted them exactly there.
As the album unfolds, his arrangement work starts to really shine. Which is not to say this is a slow starter, just that it takes a good four or five tracks to appreciate the diversity on the menu. It's no '60s throwback pastiche, either. His rock tracks, such as "Do the Math" or "The Jebidiah Mustache Suite," have serious bite, and his guitar work is more informed by Queen's Brian May than George Harrison.
What's more, there are also tracks such as "If I Were Him" and "Oh If Only," that seem to hover in their own alternate time line: Latin syncopation augmenting '70s easy listening in a way that never happened back then — but should have.
Patton's vocal work throughout is superb. He nails a variety of styles, with a warm delivery that's half Broadway, half Ben Folds. Brian Wilson is in there, for sure, but Patton also harks back to great New York City piano men like Mose Allison and Joe Jackson. Really, I could spend the rest of this review just teasing out the DNA strands and references.
Even Patton's ostensibly whimsical songs are laced with layers of meaning. Take, for instance, "The Imbecile," a stadium-ready rock track. What sounds like a Led Zeppelin-esque stream of consciousness turns out to be a reinvented tarot deck of entwined relationships.
What's more, Patton actually illustrated that entire tarot deck and then made a real copy of it for his recent music video. This is the kind of dedication he brings to everything he does.
With Meaning What, Patton has crafted something monumental. The album is a lean beast with 11 tracks coming in at just over half an hour, but it hits you like a ton of bricks. This is charming, powerful pop music. While his heady stew of influences may not be for everyone, his execution is so damn good that I would still advise everyone to give it a chance.
Meaning What is available at CD Baby. The Ben Patton Band tape a live show at Lake Champlain Access Television in Colchester on Thursday, November 29.