Until now, Benji Hughes has had just one full album to his name, 2008's under-appreciated double-length A Love Extreme, so you'd be forgiven for thinking you've never heard one of his songs. But considering that Hughes is not just a keen songwriter but also a master of the commercial jingle, chances are he's already embedded an earworm into your subconscious. Car companies, breakfast cereals, GE and alcoholic beverages alike have all benefited from his craft, as Hughes has mastered the art of Vine-length melodies.
Eight years on from A Love Extreme, the North Carolina singer-songwriter shows off a remarkable toolkit on Songs In The Key Of Animals, which follows a few singles last year. After all those intervening years, Hughes still delivers a lean 41-minute album that runs the length of the dial of a car manufactured in the 1970s. He's got the sunny haze of AM pop down, but he also boasts the acumen of singer-songwriters like Randy Newman and Warren Zevon, with the humor of Nilsson thrown in. Which isn't to suggest that Hughes only gazes backward. In piano-led numbers like "Picnic" and "Longshot," Hughes' droll vocal delivery delivers pain and delight in the same register, reminiscent of The Magnetic Fields' Stephin Merritt.
In the joyous, upbeat "Peacockin' Party" and "Sugartree," Hughes suggests a confectionary realm where Dr. John was produced by Beck back in the Midnite Vulture days. Or — since his hirsute will o' the wisp styling evokes the man — a parallel world where Leon Russell inhabits Prince And The Revolution's Around The World In A Day. In the winking "Girls Love Shoes," Hughes gets his backing vocalists to nail the dulcet harmonies of The Beach Boys, as if Brian Wilson's girl group the Honeys had recorded Smiley Smile.
But no matter the song, it sounds as if Hughes decided to throw a party in the studio. The way guests like Meshell Ndegeocello have their voices burst in on the songs sounds natural rather than premeditated, as if they'd just accidentally opened the door to the vocal booth. For all the audible joy and catchy hooks on display, the album's most stirring moment comes in the slow-building six minutes of "Song For Nancy," wherein Hughes wears his emotions on his sleeve. Thanks to his elegant piano playing, no words are necessary.