Ben Sollee is a classically-trained cellist who was raised in Kentucky on a healthy dose of bluegrass, jazz, and old time R&B. If that's sounds like a strange combination, it is. However, Sollee has emerged as one of the most interesting and dynamic young acoustic artists today. On Inclusions, his second solo album which clocks in at a taught 34 minutes, Sollee has fully established his unique artistic legacy.
Sollee first came to many people attention on Dear Companion, his all-Kentucky collaboration duo album with Daniel Martin Moore produced by Yim Yames (aka Jim James of My Morning Jacket). Dear Companion was recorded to raise awareness about mountaintop removal mining, and it remains a stunning collection of Appalachian-influenced folk music.
Inclusions branches out from that album to show the breadth of Sollee's influences. The album's title has serious meaning to Sollee as he explains:
I love this record. I love it for all of its meanings, explicit and incidental. I love the people I got to work with and the sound they helped create. I love how challenging it was to excavate some of the musical ideas and how others washed up in conversation. In these songs, I can hear the city I grew up in and the people that lived down the street.
Sollee is all about the mashup of styles. After starting with a old time musical interlude, "Close To You" delivers a ragged, be-bop stomper. "The Globe" "Capitivity" and "Hurting" are a trio of great pop-inspired songwriting on par with the best around.
Sollee's vocal phrasing throughout is like his instrument. It comes in deeply felt emotive bursts. On "Embrace" Sollee even harmonizes with his cello. He has an amazing connection with his instrument. It matches the deepest soul connections of aritsts like Van Morrison.
The delightful "Huddle on the Rooftop" sounds like a demo made for the Drifters. It's demo-like sparseness is counter-balanced by the piano flurries soaring over its straightforward backing track. "Electrified" is, of course, filled with non-electric instruments, led by a Sollee's surging cello. This ironic song demonstrates how electricity is not always necessary to create raw musical energy.
The album beautifully ends with "I Need" a duet with the wonderful Cheyenne Mize. If Sollee were so inclined, a couple of superstar artists could record this for some big movie soundtrack and make it a huge hit. For that reason, it's nice to hear it in this simple, soulful way.
There are times Sollee appears to be playing with his audience since he operates at a very high level. Yet, he somehow accomplishes the near impossible - starting with a seemingly elitist foundation (literate writing, classical music, etc) while still making accessible, catchy, and deeply moving music.
On "Bible Belt," the album's centerpiece, Sollee might have created his statement of purpose. Like many inside our region, Sollee loves traditions, but he doesn't want to be restricted by rigidity. He loves to experiment, combine, and meld them into something all his own. As he sings, "I don't want to wear your Bible Belt," Sollee tosses away anything that might bind him.
Sometimes a specialist, one who digs deeply into one area, can lose sight of the big picture. Sollee does the opposite by using his deep connection to his primary instrument to present a very personal sense of the big picture. The best musicians understand how to honor their influences while still expanding their own vistas.
Ben Sollee has pulled off that rare feat with great success on Inclusions.
- Jim Markel