Ben Sollee: Inclusions

Ben Sollee
Tin Ear/Thirty Tigers
Rating: ★★★★☆

Lady Gaga may currently be the world’s most flamboyant, disco-propelled advocate for coexistence of the artistic and the popular in music, but there’s a far less self-conscious or prefabricated meeting of those impulses to be found in the output of a guy whose primary instrument is cello and who’s gotten into the habit of riding his bike to gigs—Ben Sollee.

The Kentucky native has toured or recorded with Otis Taylor, the thinking person’s banjo-playing bluesman; with boundary-less acoustic innovators Abigail Washburn, Bela Fleck and Casey Driessen in the Sparrow Quartet; with classically trained pianist/songwriter Vienna Teng; and with educated southern folkie Daniel Martin Moore.

See a pattern emerging here? Sollee’s a magnet for highly intelligent collaborators.

But you can also tell from his solo work—the If You’re Gonna Lead My Country EP, his full-length debut Learning to Bend and his latest, Inclusions—that he knows an instantly appealing melody when he hears one.

At the core of a lot of Sollee’s compositions is singer-songwriter soul-pop. During “Bible Belt”—a quiet standout on his new album—sweeping horns, a graceful, gliding groove and the soft luminescence of his vibrato singing bring to mind Sam Cooke, while his storytelling blends concreteness (a dress bought at Target) with metaphor (the multi-layered “bible belt” image) in sophisticated ways.

Sollee makes good use of his instrumental chops, too. He overlays one bowing pattern with another to amplify the anxiety in the chorus of “Hurting”—and, in the process, push it a few degrees left of what you’d expect to hear; he propels the nimble melody of “Electrified” with a crisp, funky approach to cello playing that approaches live-band hip-hop.

Lyrically, Sollee’s sensibility is precise, postmodern and colored by social awareness, though there’s nothing here that’s quite as explicit in its commentary as some of the songs on his previous solo releases or his mountain top removal-protesting collaboration with Martin Moore, Dear Companion.

Inclusions is a thoughtful and thoroughly imaginative album about what a huge and complicated undertaking it is to truly relate to other human beings, what with all our mismatches in expectations and differences in background, experience and belief. It’s also an accessible one, even if the songs do call for a tad more digestion than Gaga’s. Which—outside of a dance club—isn’t necessarily a bad thing.