Ben Arnold


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Ever since the success of Bob Dylan in the mid-'60s transformed the notion of what constitutes a good, or even acceptable, singing voice for a recording artist, the term "singer/songwriter" has referred to someone whose superior songwriting ability made up for his or her vocal inadequacies (or whose rough voice actually lent authenticity to the mature tenor of the lyrics). It's easy to see why Ben Arnold won a major-label contract in the 1990s, since he was very much in the singer/songwriter tradition so beloved of both rock critics and A&R people, both hoping to discover the next Dylan (or even the next Elvis Costello), and it's just as easy to see why he was dropped after his Ruffhouse/Columbia Records debut, Almost Speechless, garnered nothing more than the expected good reviews in the fall of 1995. Since then, Arnold has managed to put together an independently released collection of his demos, In Case I'm Gone Tomorrow (2000), and, finally, this third album. His talents are on display immediately on "Zig Zag," one of several songs he seems to have written as a means of self-encouragement ("A better day is up ahead," he reassures us and himself). Arnold and his backup musicians, led by multi-instrumentalist Scott Bricklin, tend to come up with arrangements that aspire to the combustible rock shuffle style of the Rolling Stones, with various ear-catching gimmicks thrown in, and they are consistently pleasing. The lyrics are often witty and always literate, but Arnold sings them in one of those "singer/songwriter" voices, a wheezy whisper that would be happy to evoke comparisons to the vocals of John Hiatt or Steve Forbert (or even Randy Newman), but that lacks the presence of these limited instruments. Arnold's songs are not always appealing; the album goes soft and sentimental toward the end, with weak reflections on 9/11 and John Lennon. But many of the earlier songs are excellent. It's just that the songwriter doesn't have the vocal chops to do them justice, which would seem to doom him to status as a minor singer/songwriter.

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