“They play Good Charlotte on the radio, and that’s the way I like it/ I hear Beyonce on the radio, and that’s the way I like it/ They don’t play me on the radio, and that’s the way I like it,” Ben Lee playfully sings on his new album, “Awake Is the New Sleep.” Though the singer-songwriter says he’d rather not be on the radio, “Awake” tells a different story. From infectious pop-rock tunes like “Catch My Disease” to saccharine ballads, the album could be absorbed into the mainstream with great ease. Incredibly catchy and easily comprehendible, it is an innocent, carefree album. But though the CD is fun and lighthearted, it ultimately lacks any striking originality or impressive instrumentation.
A New Yorker via Australia, Lee has been at it for a long time — “Awake” is his sixth album — and he’s only 26 years old. He’s never attained mass popularity (though it’s likely that this album will change that), but Lee has maintained a below-the-radar appeal. He’s known just as much for membership in the Bens (along with Ben Folds and Ben Kweller) as for his now-defunct relationship with Yalie Claire Danes.
Lee’s sound has evolved from the solo acoustic guitar of his debut, “Grandpaw Would,” which he recorded when he was 16. “Awake” is produced by Brad Wood, who did his first albums, and as a result its songs maintain a quiet, acoustic core. But many also include synthesized instrumentations, which is what lends “Awake” its full and radio-friendly sound. It’s also what makes Lee more comparable to Howie Day than Elliott Smith. The other difference, of course, is talent: none of the songs on “Awake” have either the sweeping beauty of Smith’s “XO” or the emotional depth of “Either/Or.”
But that’s not to say that Lee’s album isn’t satisfying in its own way. Using heavy repetition of melodic lyrics over energizing and thumping beats, Lee creates a very effective sing-along CD. As if to prove this, there are songs — most notably, the idealistically uplifting “We’re All in This Together” and “Catch My Disease” — with a chorus of singing and clapping people in the background. Called the “party vocals” in the liner notes, the chorus is a massive congregation of Ben Lee’s friends, including indie-rockers Jenny Lewis and Har Mar Superstar (another friend, actor-drummer Jason Schwartzman, is also featured on the album). Judging by their cheers and laughing, it must have been roaringly fun to record the songs.
Jocular and cheery songs like “Disease” perfectly display what works about “Awake” — simplistic and anthemic music without pretentiousness. The album doesn’t claim to be anything more than casually sincere, as exemplified by its title, neither overtly theatrical nor subtly brooding. “Into the Dark,” a catchy, blatantly poppy tune about the yearning for a separated lover, is complete with an instantly resonant and upbeat chorus. Lee’s lyrics border on corniness (“It’s a mystery / When you’re near me/ I’ve gotta find a way to your heart”), though luckily it’s hard to pay too much attention to them. But on the album’s worst songs — “Gamble Everything for Love” and “Apple Candy,” whose titles say everything about them — Lee takes a dive from cute and catchy to easily-ridiculed soft rock.
Most of the album’s ballads successfully focus on simple guitar chord progressions and arpeggios, and the simplicity of the bare instrumentation works well against Lee’s strong and smooth vocals. In “Ache For You,” Lee gently croons about unreasonable craving over a softly alliterative electric guitar and tapping piano keys.
That Lee uses keyboards and drum machines might deceive you into thinking he’s forgotten the organic roots of the acoustic singer-songwriter sound. But the album’s closer, “I’m Willing,” proves otherwise: the organically tranquil track features only his earnest vocals and steady guitar. Conversely, “Awake” includes a self-indulgent, nearly 10 minute experimental track, “Light,” which mostly amounts to a meandering conglomeration of wailing guitar riffs over crashing cymbals. It is weirdly out of place on the album, though it isn’t an entire waste — its last two minutes features a sax solo that sounds straight out of mid-70s Rolling Stones.
Sounding fairly traditional and lacking wondrous ingenuity, “Awake” is certain to be criticized for its formulaic appeal. But that would belie the very musical aspect the disc thrives on: unposturing pop. Lee doesn’t take himself too seriously on the disc, making endearing songs to be enjoyed for sincerity and sentiment. That the album isn’t particularly profound or groundbreaking doesn’t make it worthless, especially when it’s this fun to sing along to.