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Groove Master Benji Hughes Sings 'Songs In The Key Of Animals'


This is FRESH AIR. Our rock critic, Ken Tucker, has a review of the new album from singer-songwriter Benji Hughes. Hughes is from North Carolina and his music pops up in a lot of places, ranging from jingles he's written for ramen breakfast cereal commercials to music placed on TV shows like "How I Met Your Mother" to vocals on a 2011 album made by the actor Jeff Bridges. Here's Ken's review of Hughes's new album, "Songs In The Key Of Animals."


BENJI HUGHES: (Singing) There's this girl. This girl who told me she's got a heart of gold. She no good like Buddy Holly, but she knows how to rock 'n roll.

KEN TUCKER, BYLINE: Benji Hughes most often sings in a laid-back murmur. The idea is to be intimate to the point of being too relaxed to bother enunciating clearly. Throughout the riffs and hooks that form what he calls these "Songs In The Key Of Animals," Hughes isn't concerned about proving he's a deep thinker. He'd rather you think of him as a deep groove master.


HUGHES: (Singing) Pull me up to the top. Pull me up to the top. Pull me up to the top. Let's climb the sugar tree. Let's climb the sugar tree. Let's climb the sugar tree. Let's climb the sugar tree. Let's climb the sugar tree. Let's climb the sugar tree. Let's climb the sugar tree. Let's climb the sugar tree.

TUCKER: That song, "Sugartree," consists of just a couple of phrases like let's climb the sugar tree. And the rest of the time, Hughes takes immense care to build up a rhythm with a lot of spring and elasticity. He invites women to sing the hook and the chorus. His use of female voices in opposition to his own is beautifully contrasted in this love song called "Picnic."


HUGHES: (Singing) Don't fall in love. Not without me. Don't you go getting all shook about me. Don't make any cookies. Not in the dark. Don't be going on picnics.

UNIDENTIFIED SINGER: (Singing) I don't get it. What do you want me to say? I don't get it. What do you want me to say?

TUCKER: In 2008, Hughes released a big 25-song album called "A Love Extreme." A hypnotic collection of pop songs about ordinary things ranging from playing music so loud the neighbors complain to a tune called, "I Went With Some Friends To See The Flaming Lips." The album went nowhere commercially, but it is definitely something of a cult classic. On his new album, the song that comes closest to the material on "A Love Extreme" is this medium tempo meditation about feeling good, feeling bad, feeling bad about feeling good and other permutations of these sentiments. It's called "Longshot."


HUGHES: (Singing) There's people you love, but you don't want to love. And there's people you hate, but you don't want to love. And there's people you hate, that you don't want to hate. And there's people in love that you don't want to love. Everybody's wrong. They don't know where they're going. Like anybody does. I don't know what's coming, coming, coming, but I'm counting on a longshot. Sometimes you feel bad.

TUCKER: Whether he's composing a line such as, there's a penguin in a tux looking so deluxe or singing a song called "Girls Love Shoes," Hughes is all about creating an atmosphere in which anything can happen, but nothing is left to chance or chaos. It's no wonder he plays most of the instruments himself and that the silly sentiments are so artfully arranged. He's a closet control freak.


UNIDENTIFIED SINGER: (Singing) Girls like parties. Girls like the beach. Girls like shopping and yoga. Girls like dancing. They like laying out in the sun. Girls like boys. Girls like boys. Girls like lots of things. Girls like lots of things. Girls love shoes. Girls - girls love shoes.

TUCKER: In Benji Hughes's music, you can hear a love for pop music - all kinds of pop - from the Beach Boys, to Donna Summer, to KC and The Sunshine Band that is entirely in the service of pleasure - yours and his. He's a studio rat who labors mightily to put a big, lazy smile on your face. I've got one right now just thinking about the music on this album.

DAVIES: Ken Tucker is critic-at-large for Yahoo TV. He reviewed the album "Songs In The Key Of Animals" by Benji Hughes. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Ken Tucker reviews rock, country, hip-hop and pop music for Fresh Air. He is a cultural critic who has been the editor-at-large at Entertainment Weekly, and a film critic for New York Magazine. His work has won two National Magazine Awards and two ASCAP-Deems Taylor Awards. He has written book reviews for The New York Times Book Review and other publications.
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