If you’re someone looking for a very traditional bluegrass or folk sound, Ben Phan and the Soul Symphony has rung your bell with Fear is the Teacher. Off the bat this album is interesting because while their aesthetic is steeped in traditional sounds, there is a hint of pop about it, in the best way possible. The time signatures and format choices give the music a modern bump and I was into it.
I have to admit, when I first started listening, I realized the band and I had very different definitions of “soul.” I saw the word in their handle and got a little excited that I would maybe get a little funk or R&B mixed in here, that never came. That’s okay, I’ll put that one on me, however I have a feeling I’m not the only one who might come to that conclusion. Obviously “soul” is not a word that should be limited to one specific genre, I get it. There is soul within the album, it tells great stories, some humorous and some that are very grounding and real.
When it gets into the nitty gritty stuff, I really fell hard for track three “No Pain.” This is a great song for when your bad mood needs a score. It speaks to almost any kind of betrayal and does so in a gruff, pointed way. It really sticks out from the crowd and I feel brings the most modern feel with it. The songs are dripping with personality, all cylinders firing in almost every track. It’s sort of like the music and the lyrics are in a competition to see who can complement the other in the greatest fashion.
Phan has a great voice that parks itself right in the niche where his music sits. He is forever teetering the line between genres and is mindful to adjust depending on the track. The backbone of this album is all strings and it is absolutely beautiful. I was really blown away when I got to “Neon Avenue.” The intro on that track is spellbinding and is coupled with vulnerable and haunting lyrics. Another track I feel is worth mentioning is “The Pause.” This one is a great example of utilizing the movement of the music to create a more modern pop feel amidst the traditional sounds.
I did notice a few moments where I felt the audio mixing could have been tweaked, but overall the audio was well done and let everything shine. I think when things get a little too traditional sounding like “Be Still My Beating Heart,” I was not as thrilled. However, those traditional songs certainly have their place in this album, it felt like an homage to the sound they had built upon. The music is very accessible, when I thought of the people I would recommend it to, I noticed it was an eclectic mix. Phan and company have really carved something out for themselves that is very much their own. I imagine they are equally as lovely in a live performance setting. There are many occasions where I could see this music being ideal. There is a lot to love and I think a lot of people could step outside of their musical comfort zones and enjoy this one.
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