Is the symphony orchestra the new concept album; the ultimate self-indulgence for pop singers – sorry, artists – who want to elevate their music above the din of commercial radio? Think about it: they farm out their tunes to hard-up composers, expecting musical majesty from their simplistic melodies and repetitive choruses, they hire an entire symphony and a concert hall they’d never fill without the orchestra subscribers, and then charge their fans $100-plus to come and listen to them live their unfulfilled-for-a-reason fantasy.
Ben Lee doesn’t need this reputation. As perhaps the most polarising singer-songwriter in Australian music – a hybrid beast of FM pop and the too-cool-for-school Triple J punksters who abandoned him long ago – the pretentious pacifist actually has a whole army of haters. You either like him or you, not to put too fine a point on it, think he’s a wanker.
The Brisbane Convention Centre was only filled with love for Lee when he teamed with the Queensland Orchestra last Sunday for a one-night-only classical jam session. But it’s not hard to see what inspires the anti-Ben brigade: the casually-dressed 30-year-old gloats to the semi-full auditorium about kissing former teen pin-up Tiffani-Amber Thiessen in a music video, and then gets the crowd to recite in song how he was a “lucky motherf**ker”.
And then there’s the syrupy songs. Love Me Like The World Is Ending? Plllllease. He sums up (or sends up?) his career in a preview of the yet-to-be-released first single from his next album: “I love pop music; this is how we do it; it’s politics you can romance to; I love pop music; you sprinkle sugar through it; philosophy that you can dance to.” Quite.
So I get it, I do. But for all the peace-love-and-understanding, in spite of the sappy lyrics and simple melodies, and because of the boyish big-headedness, Ben Lee rocks. And I defy anyone to attend a gig and not catch his disease. On stage he is nothing but cheekily charming, self-deprecatingly funny and completely and utterly infectious.
So, for mine, he can indulge in a little baton waving whenever he likes. Especially given, unlike others who have gone before, the arrangements more often worked than not.
The simplicity of Lee’s anti-pop actually lends itself to the orchestra environment. These are great melodies, unshackled by existing heavy arrangements, which soar to epic proportions on stirring strings and boisterous brass.
The night was a lively mix of crowd-pleasing hits and songs from his latest underrated album, Ripe. Plus an intermission because, a genuinely humbled Lee quipped, “that’s what they do at the adult table”. Is This How Love’s Supposed To Feel and Begin, to pick just two, were beautifully arranged and sweetly performed.
And when Lee clutches the microphone with both hands and warbles about getting off your boiling plate, and the earnest-looking, tuxedo-suited violinists bow furiously to a crescendo, even the most haughty orchestra subscriber would have liked the result. The magnificent Queensland Orchestra fortifies just how good a pop song Cigarettes Will Kill You really is.
And how good a songwriter Ben Lee is.
The knockers can get stuffed.
The Queensland Orchestra presents
Venue: Brisbane Convention and Exhibition Centre
Date/Time: 7.30pm, Sunday, November 23
Tickets: from $70
Bookings: Ticketek 132 849
Booking and transaction fees apply