It could be argued that a gap of 31 years between recording albums should at least merit a small investigation from the Guinness Book of Records. Although to be fair to Ben Watt he was somewhat preoccupied in the time between with his sterling work with soul mate Tracey Thorn and constructing the many albums of Everything but the Girl. "Hendra" is Watts first album since his debut and he describes it as "a folk-rock record in an electronic age". It features Berlin-based producer Ewan Pearson and Pink Floyd's David Gilmour on the slow ballad "The Levels" a real standout track. Fundamentally the musical supporting bulwark of the album is the great ex Suede guitarist Bernard Butler whose choice finger picking and riffing throughout is another reason to buy this excellent record.
Watt has a good ear for a song and the title track for the album sets a shimmering mood for the rest that follows. There are two versions of "Forget" on the deluxe album and this reviewer is edging to the more acoustic based live version although both are splendid. It is true that the jazzy rumba of "Golden Ratio" does have a slightly ETBTG vibe and what is wrong with that if the music is this good? It is chillout music of the highest order and could soundtrack the slow end of warm summer evenings. Other songs which immediately draw the listener in are the gorgeous "Matthew Arnold's Field" a slowly rolling piano driven song filled with latent grief and concentrating on the death of Watt's father and the scattering of his ashes. In a similar vein the albums concluding song "The Heart is a Mirror" is a song about self-reflection and resilience, which swirls with dark emotions.
More upbeat is "Nathanial" with great playing by Butler. It chronicles the impact of a post accident scene witnessed by Watts on one of his forays into the USA. The impact is profound as he describes, "Letters of five foot high/so simple against this Oregon sky/It says Nathaniel we will always love you". Finally mention should go to "Young Man's Game" an introspective song chronicling Watts journey from DJ/clubber to middle aged man telling how the passage of decades changes personality and questions long held values.
In the last analysis there is nothing about this album that is particularly earth shattering other than the fact that Watt is clearly a singer songwriter of the highest order with a coolly elegant voice. Let us sincerely hope that we don't have to wait until 2045 for his next musical intervention. He is an artist with the finest musical pedigree, who has loyally played the role of a perennial "sidekick". With "Hendra" he is firmly in the driving seat and it is great to have him back on song.
on 24 April 2014
What a treat it is to hear the return of such a talent - or perhaps that should be talents since this feels more like a collaboration with Bernard Butler than a completely solo effort. All the songs are written by Ben Watt, but there is also a lot of really beautifully restrained electric guitar supplied by one of this country's finest.
I was lucky enough to catch them both live earlier this week playing everything from this album, and the song introductions made it clear that most - if not all - of these songs are inspired by personal experiences (growing older, revisiting a former home, the loss of his sister and father).
The overall feel of this is closer to his other solo outing of 3 decades ago than anything put out with Tracey Thorn. Of course he is no longer 19 years old so there is more heart and a stronger voice here.
I bought the Deluxe copy of this album and I would recommend you think about doing the same as the 4 extra demo versions with Ben just accompanying himself are very direct and powerful. The guy certainly knows how to tell a story.
Whilst musically this is completely different from Lennon, I felt touched by this album in the same way I am touched by both Imagine and Mind Games. Of course this will never sell in such quantities, but it's a measure of the emotional content to be found in here.
A terrific return with a warm glow.
on 5 May 2014
It's been a long time since there's been any release by Ben Watt and then in early 2014, he's delivered a well-written book about his parents marriage and decline into old age (Romany and Tom) and this set of songs. That book and the lyrical approach of Mark Kozelek focusing on memories and associated minutiae informs a number of the tracks here - scattering his father's ashes in Matthew Arnold's Field and the recent passing of his half-sister informs both the title track and The Levels. The songs are all well structured and delivered with great assistance from Bernard Butler and David Gilmour on guitar, and Watt's voice, while not the strongest you'll ever hear, has aged well. The album has a good twilight/evening feel but there are a few tracks like 'Nathaniel' that shows Ben can still make a noise if he wants to. If you're looking for tracks similar to Watts' Buzzin' Fly imprint or later Everything But The Girl, there's very little here but there are nods and links to Watt's 'outspoken' project (that spread across Buzzin' Fly 1-3 with Jennifer Valone and which Watt should have made more of) in 'Forget' and a regretful goodbye to the DJ world in 'Young Man's Game'. It's a hopeful album despite its sad subject matter which is not easy to pull off. Welcome back Ben
on 22 May 2014
Chances are, if you're reading this, you know a fair bit about Ben and EBTG already, so let's talk about "Hendra". Like all good albums, you need to listen to this a few times before judging. There is no doubt, in my view, that Ben has always been a good writer. And he is a very good singer as well. Maybe it's unfortunate that he's largely been the other half of Tracey (who let's face it is the Voice). But Ben has always been her perfect complimentary counterpoint, and a great singer in his own way when he takes the lead. (See previous perfect gems like "The Night I Heard Caruso Sing", "Boxing and Pop Music", "The Road").
Ben describes "Hendra" as a folk rock album, and it is, in the best sense of that term. If you're old enough, think of those ageless classic "Island" albums of the late 60's / early 70's e.g. Fairport, Fotheringay, John Martyn, Nick Drake, etc., and you'll get the idea. Yet it is contemporary at the same time. Without repeating Ben's family background to the genesis of these songs, they are clearly very personal indeed. In a lesser writer, this could be a bad thing, distancing rather than connecting. But here they travel well and inhabit a wider landscape. (N.B. If you really want the connections, check out Ben's book "Romany and Tom".) The instrumentation and arrangements are spot on for what Ben's creating. Bernard Butler is a plus, but it's still Ben's album.
I'd suggest you get the "de luxe" version, because the extra acoustic versions are well worth having. (Perhaps there'll be an extended double album released years later with all the demos on it like the recent EBTG re-issues.)
Mostly, the whole album has a cohesive feel to it. Personally, I would have preferred a slower tempo version of "Nathaniel" to retain the internal integrity, but that's just my taste (and I am old). All of the songs deserve their place here. A few comments about some of them:
"Spring" has a real John Lennon feel about it; bad news for Tracey who doesn't rate the Beatles (!).
"Young Man's Game" is a true classic. It will grab you straight away and get in your head - so good they did it twice. The Demo version and also "Golden Ratio" could be missing tracks from "Bless The Weather", but by John Martyn's nicer brother.
A lot of comments have been made about "Matthew Arnold's Field", perhaps the most specifically personal of all the songs here. It's the song version of an elegiac chapter in "Romany and Tom".
"The Heart is a Mirror" manages to tread the fine line between an acute set of observations on relationships while still holding together as an engaging song. Listen hard.
Ok, clearly I'm a fan of Ben and EBTG, but even if you've never heard of them, this album is well worth your time. The Ben Watt renaissance starts here - a book and an album in the same year. And who knows, now Ben and Tracey are both writing and singing again, maybe they'll get together in the same studio?
on 25 August 2014
Lovely. I haven't bought a CD since David Gilmour's latest, so it was a bonus to have him on here. The words are very poignant, and some of the songs are just a piano and him, and sound fabulous. Forget is my favourite.
on 25 June 2014
I like the overall mood of this record, which is mostly acoustic and intimate. I would go so far as to say that it may affect you more if you are at a certain stage of life - that's why it resonated with me, I think. Strong melodies, good reflective non pretentious lyrics , not overly produced - it's all good. Highly recommended.
on 25 May 2014
One of the best voices around,even back with Everything But The Girl he seemed to be the male equivalent to her voice wise,"The night Curuso Sang" is just beautiful.
This offers quality song writing & an album thats been beautifully produced,you can almost feel the love.This is all very gentle,thoughtful stuff & even quite personal at times,or thats how it felt.Great voice & a classy album.
on 16 April 2014
What shines through is the quality - quality songs, quality playing and quality production values. When you get all three you get a great album. It is one which is hard to classfy, especially if you're not a Ben Watt / EBTG fan already but one which anyone who appreciates good music should give a listen to.
on 18 September 2014
Bought this on the strength of the great reviews here. Wasn't disappointed. This is an album I hoped Ben would do, but hardly expected him to do. Although a big ETBG fan, I was less taken with the latter dance influenced material, and for some reason expected any future Ben Watt album would reflect that. Nothing could be further from the truth. This is a vary varied, in some ways old fashioned album, with surprising shades of Dire Straights guitar sound on a couple of the tracks. It's very accessible. Lyrically, it's very good, as might expect from Ben's earlier work. Poles apart from his original solo album, but then that's hardly a surprise. Based on this, I wouldn't say no to another solo effort from Ben, and just hope we don't have to wait so long next time!