I know that when you're creating a true DIY project, everyone that helps with anything is “in the band,” but Heypenny is all Ben Elkins. I just have a feeling that Ben Elkins doesn’t want it to be all about Ben Elkins. The modesty is endearing, but after making a record like this one, Elkins better get used to the attention.
The ten dark yet heartwarming songs on Use These Spoons were written, produced, and performed by Elkins with the help of two handfuls of guest musicians and backup vocalists. Think of the first Ben Folds Five album with the soul of James Taylor, the pop sensibilities of Paul McCartney, and the songcraft of a young Sufjan Stevens. In the slightly excessive but extremely catchy Maxwell’s Silver Hammer-esque Dooley, Elkins makes the girls swoon with the story of shy Dooley, in love, fleeing on his moped after an awkward encounter at the laundromat. I know, awww. Elkins becomes a one man New Pornographers in the remarkable Parade as he pounds on the keys and sings his own backup harmonies. Secreterror, a song about war or war as metaphor (I’m still undecided), has a distinctly Jamiroqui feel while Let It Rain and Everything is Brighter reflect the beauty of the best Elliot Smith tracks. The key is that while these influences easily come to mind while listening, they don’t entrap the songs. There's definitely a sound coming together here. Where Heypenny (the band) takes it we’ll just have to wait and see.
The common theme running through many of the songs has me thinking that there may be a concept album hiding inside — it works either way. Sure, the rain in Dooley could be the rain Dooley is begging for while missing home serving in Iraq, but it doesn’t have to be. It could just be Elkins emerging knack for taking timely and universal themes and making you feel them on an extremely personal level. Planned concept album or not, these songs are about love and war and how we are affected by each.
In Seems So Small, Elkins, backed admirably by a string quintet, gives us the downfall of a failed and once hailed pop star that we all know is really our failed and once hailed president. I don’t know what I like better, the music or the imagery. My favorite moment of the album is when Elkins nails the final four lines of Radio. His voice breaking through, he sings those four lines louder than the rest of the song. There really is nothing left for Elkins to say, and he knows it.