There aren’t too many singer-songwriter-cellists operating in today’s indie world, but then again, there’s very little that’s ordinary about Ben Sollee. A Kentucky boy, Sollee grew up studying classical music but worshipping Lauryn Hill. He played cello in The Sparrow Quartet, a bluegrass-based band with Chinese lyrics. He’s a political activist—not just a pretend one: He teamed with My Morning Jacket’s Yim Yames and folk songwriter Daniel Martin Moore for the Dear Companion project, which was recorded and toured behind in protest of the controversial Appalachian mining practice known as mountaintop removal.
Whereas his collaboration with Daniel Martin Moore on 2010’s excellent Dear Companion brought a high-minded approach to the musical traditions of his home state of Kentucky, Ben Sollee moves away from the sounds of Appalachia on his second solo album, Inclusions, focusing instead on a progressive take on modern pop. Given the classically trained cellist’s indie leanings, it isn’t surprising that Sollee would follow in the vein of acts like Sufjan Stevens, but it’s a testament to his unique talents that Inclusions emerges as a distinctive, compelling record. It’s the meticulous nature of Sollee’s cockeyed pop compositions that draw the most immediate comparisons to Stevens’s best work.
Veteran folk cellist Ben Sollee returns with ten fully realized tracks and the obligatory nanosecond introduction. Inclusions has many of the Sollee hallmarks: imaginative arrangements, wicked humor, and, most importantly, loads and loads of good singin’ and good playin’. The album’s creator has stated that this is an amalgamation of his youth—a time when he heard the curious blend of old fiddle tunes, Bach, and Lauryn Hill seemingly day in and day out.
In the early 1990s, the Basque hip-hop/rock/hardcore band Negu Gorriak formed in the wake of a burgeoning radical rock scene, issuing a direct challenge to Spanish authority by condemning police brutality, appropriating Public Enemy’s racial politics, and singing songs in Euskara. In doing so, they adopted the musical vocabulary of American musicians but maintained a claim to local identity by educating young listeners about Basque dispossession. Whether the band thought Basque music simply wouldn’t do as a vehicle for revolutionary sentiments in the 20th century is a mystery.
While singer/songwriter/cellist Ben Sollee's second solo album, Inclusions, can't exactly be called "classical crossover," it does occupy a musical space in between classical and pop music in the sense that the classically trained Sollee retains an arty sensibility that he brings to the folk/country sound he adopts. Or maybe it's just that building pop arrangements off a cello necessarily leads to somewhat classical effects. Sollee sings impressionistic lyrics in a somewhat disembodied tenor, and when that singing is supported by arrangements featuring, for instance, a deliberately atonal horn chart ("Bible Belt"), the result is art song, if not the sort of music likely to turn up in a recital hall.
There’s a nostalgia virus running rampant throughout indie music these days. From the bands of the Jack-White-iverse trying to resurrect ’70s rock and groups like Surfer Blood working to mutate ’50s surf rock, acts across the spectrum are looking back for inspiration and to find their voice in a sea of sounds. For cellist/vocalist Ben Sollee, though, he didn’t have very far to reach back in order to make his freak-folk inspired album, Inclusions.
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.