Calico by Ben Arnold

**I posted this over at Blogcritics and thought I would share with you here.**

Ben Arnold’s latest release, Calico, is an eclectic blend of catchy pop tunes, rocky blues jams, and melancholy ballads. What unifies the album is Ben’s rather husky voice. Others have compared it to Randy Newman or Graham Parker but for some reason it reminds me of Counting Crows lead singer Adam Duritz. Regardless of who it reminds you of, all or none of the above, Ben’s voice and his lyrics provide the focus on this wide ranging album.

Calico starts out with upbeat rock/pop tunes. Zig Zag and Calico Kid are catchy playful tunes in the “life is a trip enjoy it” mold. The chorus of Zig Zag sets the tone:

You gotta zig zag
Have yourself a laugh
Someone’s gonna let the sun in
Get a big bag
Fill it with your past
Leave it out for Monday morning
Zig zag, zig zag

While House of Cards continues with the upbeat music and pop sound, it introduces the melancholy tone that is mixed throughout the album. Without the lyrics you would think it was a love song but it is about the loss of love:

‘Cause it seems what once was
Holding us together
Now it just keeps tearing us apart
We could bear any kind of weather
How did we build this house of cards?

The experimentation continues with Blacklight which Arnold describes as a “psychedelic love song about how the best things can explode into the worst things.” Despite this description, or perhaps because of it depending on your perspective, it is one of the stronger tunes on the album. The music is simple and yet its rhythm and tone match the black light of the title. Ben’s voice overlays a ballad onto this psychedelic sound. The resulting mix is a surprisingly catchy tune.

After this playful beginning, the album launches into a more blues orientated rock sound. Pickin’ The Lock is clearly a Rolling Stones inspired tune. The sound is your standard rock anthem with a dash of horns. The lyrics are about as deep as well:

But, how can you walk with that ball and chain
Kickin’ the rock standin” in your way
Just give it a knock and you’ll float away
Or try pickin’ it

Deeper Truth continues this sound and, and despite its title, the lack of depth. Wilderness is another rather weak attempt at this tough guy sound. Some might find this edgier rock sound appealing but personally I just don’t think Ben pulls it off. He sounds like any other rock star wannabe and the songs really don’t stand out.

Thankfully, Ben soon abandons the rock anthem sound and returns to a more folksy/bluesy sound more appropriate to a singer-songwriter. Bluegrass, contrary to its title, has is a sort of wispy, melancholy ballad. While using the instruments from that genre – banjo, mandolin, etc. – the song really doesn’t have the bluegrass sound. The subject is the end of a relationship:

Tell her I don’t want her back
Tell her that my soul was slowing dying
Tell her when the cold wind blows
I just close my eyes and go on writing

Songs like Rainbow, Sky Was Falling (about September 11), and John (about John Lennon) continue this reflective almost somber tone; not surprising given their subjects. These songs once again focus the attention back on Ben and his voice and his emotions; his passion and his personality come through.

To leave you on an upbeat note, Arnold returns to the more playful sound that began the album with Gotta Get Get ‘n’ Go. A ukulele gives it a particularly playful and child-like tone to go with the admitted immaturity that the song describes:

We’re not really trying
And it’s not gonna be
I’m not good at lying
So truthfully
This ain’t gonna grow
And You gotta know
I’m a gotta get ‘n’ go
I gotta let you know
I gotta get ‘n’ go

Overall, Calico is a enjoyable listening experience. It is, for the most part, far removed from the generic pop rock that is regularly played on the radio. At his best Ben Arnold is an talented songwriter experimenting with a variety of musical sounds and genres to highlight his unique voice and intelligent lyrics. For me the mostly insipid rock tunes on the album detract from the overall quality. I can understand Ben’s need to jam and experiment with a variety of sounds, but I just don’t think he pulls off the sound. I say stick with the singer-songwriter emphasis.

Kevin Holtsberry
I work in communications and public affairs. I try to squeeze in as much reading as I can while still spending time with my wife and two kids (and cheering on the Pittsburgh Steelers and Michigan Wolverines during football season).