A review of “City Pop” by Benny Sings

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Rating: 7.7/10

One of the advantages of modern technology is that we have access to almost any information in the world we want to access, including songs by hundreds of thousands of independent musicians around the globe. The internet has truly opened up the relationship between artist and fan, allowing those who are interested in a specific type of music to explore artists across the world that fit their palette. What this has created, according to some, is the tendency for both artists and fans to dive into little fantasy worlds of their own creation (i.e. vaporwave), which probably wouldn’t exist without the internet.

Benny Sings creates,  and has garnered some serious attention because of it. Tim van Berkestijn, the man behind Benny Sings, has spent the last few decades honing his craft, digging through layers of soft synth samples, cute R&B bass grooves, and backup vocal techniques in an effort to perfect this sound.

“City Pop” comes not long after “Beat Tape,” his 2018 release featuring mostly short songs, some of them brief sketches barely realized and others fully formed pieces. Where that album was jagged and a bit scattered, “City Pop” is polished and sophisticated. Benny Sings has put together nothing short of a pristine album, one that evokes those smooth sounds of yesteryear throughout.

The name of “City Pop” is a reference to a music scene that became popular in Japan in the late ‘70s and ‘80s, which drew its influence from soft rock and jazz fusion that had already become ingrained in western music culture. Benny Sings, a Dutch artist that has built his career on recycled and re-energized elements of smooth, soulful, has embodied similar characteristics in his career to these merry band of Japanese artists. At this point, he has become something of an auteur, a soft rock craftsman, drawing in all influence into his web of influence, from ‘70s singer-songwriter ballads to ‘90s R&B beatwork. The way these influences trickle down through generations and find new expression by a new artist (such as Benny Sings) is the really fascinating thing.

One of the guests on “City Pop” is Canadian artist Mocky, who has made a name for himself as a smooth jazz auteur in his own right. Over the past few decades, he’s flirted with mixtures of hip hop and soft rock, eventually distilling his sound into elements of smooth pop and jazz, much in the same vein that Benny Sings works. The fact that the two artists’ paths are joining is an exciting development, especially for this current soft rock revival genre.

Plus, the song Mocky plays on, “Duplicate” is one of the best on the album. Its syncopated piano line, delicate shuffle beat, and sunny vocal lines all work together perfectly, coalescing together with grace and style. You can hear Mocky’s influence on the track, from the vocal effects to the particular style in which the horn sections are written, as well as in its infectious groove that you don’t want to end.

In the City Pop genre, songs are understandably all about love. The concept of love, though definitely an obsession for music as a whole, is one of the sole pursuits for the soft rock crooner. It’s no surprise that in the opener to the album, “Everything I Know,” the “everything” refers, of course, to Benny’s love for another person: “It’s all that I’ve got / It’s everything I know.” For an artist working under the guise of City Pop, love is the noble pursuit, the catalyst for all the music, which is why it is nothing short of everything. At the beginning of the song, he walks us through a relationship experience almost everyone has had:

“The walk was long / And the talk was harder than I thought / And I wish that we could turn it back”

To implement this vision of love and music, Benny Sings uses horn sections, soft synthesizers, and many other elements of soul, pop, and R&B to populate his sound. He doesn’t take many risks here, though he doesn’t really need to. He’s perfected his own soft rock sound, and seems to be having a real fun time playing inside of it.

Benny does seem to sometimes verge on using sounds so goofy that they start to be annoying. “Nakemeguro,” instead of running smoothly like the rest of his songs, pivots itself on a slightly irritating synth line that makes the whole song sound like the soundtrack to a ‘90s arcade racing game. Maybe this is what Benny is going for, though it’s better enjoyed as a novelty than a song that you’d want to go back to for further listening.

Benny Sings recently got some serious exposure when he collaborated with Rex Orange County, an up and coming R&B star from England, on the song “Loving is Easy.” (Which also features an adorable little stop motion video). Now that he’s released two albums in consecutive years, with “Beat Tape” in 2018 and now “City Pop,” he seems to be on top of his game. His production is at its best yet, especially on songs such as “Summerlude” and the previously mentioned Mocky collaboration “Duplicate,” and he’s attracting some seriously talented collaborators as well.

“My World” stands out among the rest of his songwriting efforts. While most of his work is highly catchy, and almost incessantly poppy (like the last track “Softly (Tokyo)”), “My World” is a rare atmospheric effort from the artist. Featuring several interlocking layers and a pensive mood, it comes off as a sweet ode to his daughter and the pleasures of fatherhood.

“I know you got your mother’s eyes
They smile and they spit fire
And I can’t believe it, I’m your father
And I’ll be here every night”

 

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