Australia’s Ben Lee made his recording debut at fourteen with a startlingly great home-recorded three-chord single, “I Wish I Was Him,” about envying Evan Dando (“He’s got six different flannel shirts, Airwalks not thongs/He even understands the words to Pavement songs”). The song was discovered by Thurston Moore and Mike D. of the Beastie Boys (mentioned in its lyrics), both of whose labels put out EPs of Lee’s band, Noise Addict. (“I Wish I Was Him” was subsequently covered by Bikini Kill’s Kathleen Hanna and reportedly performed by Dando himself.)
The Taste in My Eyes (later reissued as Noise Addict Vs. Silver Chair, which the other band of Australian teenagers has nothing to do with beyond the title) is a piss-poor five-song quickie with a full electric band. “I Wish I Was Him” appears in a dull, rocked-up remake (the joke was funnier when Lee didn’t announce it). Ominous chorus (from “Baby Shoes”): “I wish I could grow back down.”
Noise Addict’s American debut came via Young & Jaded, a much better set of early recordings which includes the original version of “I Wish I Was Him” as well as a cover of Jonathan Richman’s “Back in Your Life” and four new Lee originals, notably the anti-carnivore anthem “Meat.” The other two members of Noise Addict are mercifully scarce — the rudimentary recording and Lee’s not-quite-tuned guitar make the going tough enough. Still, Lee’s incipient songwriting talent is very much in evidence. The same, however, isn’t true of Def — seven weak numbers (including a remake of Taste in My Eyes’ “Phone Remedy”) disastrously recorded and featuring some of the worst drumming ever committed to record. The band’s pubescence may be an excuse, but that doesn’t make the record any more fun to hear.
Lee recorded his solo album in America with producer Brad Wood, who made it sound very much like an earlier production of his, Liz Phair’s Exile in Guyville. Decent production, as it turned out, makes all the difference in the world. Grandpaw Would is a joy: one wonderful, catchy little pop song after another, including fleshed-out remakes of Young & Jaded’s “Pop Queen” (with backing vocals by Rebecca Gates of the Spinanes) and “Don’t Leave,” as well as the melancholy “Away With the Pixies,” the hook of which is sung by Phair. The lyrics show that Lee’s been studying his vocabulary lists (“I don’t think that’s a suitable metaphor,” “be a bit more ductile like me” — that kind of thing) and that he understands relationships better than most songwriters twice his age (“Trying to Sneeze”). And he’s not even in college yet.
The Australian Away With the Pixies EP includes its title track in the Grandpaw Would version, a not-as-good demo of “Ductile” and six extra 4-track-recorded songs, only one of which (“Shirtless”) is really worth hearing. It’s a little redundant to refer to one of Lee’s records as juvenilia, but that’s basically what this is.
On Noise Addict’s first full album, Meet the Real You, the band (an altered four-piece lineup) has learned to play well enough for Wood’s production to make up for whatever’s lacking; the remake of “Poison 1080” (from Def) is much improved. Unfortunately, Lee may be getting too cocky from all this early attention. The album contains both a brief joke called “Contractual Obligation” and a song in which he disses a woman for only hanging out with him because he can get her into shows; he reportedly wrote most of the album in the studio, a sloppy practice that’s usually the province of much older, lazier bands. Oh, Ben. He knows perfectly well what time it is (“16” is a great song about his ambivalence), but the clock is running.