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There was a lot of good music released in 2015, and for me personally, some of my favorite albums were by artists whose music took influence from various strains of the '70s singer-songwriter period, from the sunny AM pop of Tobias Jesso Jr.'s Goon and Natalie Prass' self-titled debut to the cutting Newman-esque wit of Father John Misty's I Love You, Honeybear, and the Laurel Canyon folk-rock of Zervas & Pepper's gorgeous and sadly overlooked Abstract Heart. North Carolina musician Benji Hughes is another artist who also draws inspiration from that period, his songwriting in particular often takes its cues from songwriters like Newman and Nilsson, both of whom had a knack for turning out well-crafted songs full of sharp wit and wry sarcasm as much as they did surprisingly emotionally vulnerable songs.

What sets apart Hughes is that while he can be just as witty, he takes a more light-hearted approach to his songwriting, and his sarcasm isn't nearly as biting. Overall, his are songs are humorous and even a little ridiculous at times, something that could be attributed to the fact that, outside of making his own music, he also writes commercial jingles, and his tunes have been featured in ads for Verizon, GE, breakfast cereals, and Captain Morgan rum to name a few. It's a skill he puts to good use on his new album Songs in the Key of Animals (whose title may or may not be a cheeky play on the classic Stevie Wonder album Songs in the Key of Life).

Though far from being an overreaching concept album, Animals does have a central theme that revolves around human nature. "People are animals," Hughes says, "even if some people don’t want to admit it". As you would expect, he explores that theme with varying degrees of sincerity and a whole lot of smirking puns. On songs like 'Shark Attack!!!!!!!!!!' for example, you have lines sung by a guest female vocalist like "If you show up at Red Lobster lookin like a lobster/They won't charge you for anything at all". Elsewhere song titles like 'Peacockin' Party' and 'Zebra' are pretty self-explanatory, and on the otherwise schmaltzy 'Fall Me in Love', another female singer starts off by admitting "Sometimes I just want a cupcake". So yeah, dude's got jokes, even if they could sometimes pass for dad jokes. The only time he comes closest to bombing out is on 'Girls Like Shoes', a send up of sexist stereotypes that winds up being a little less funny than intended.

Listening to the songs on here, you get the impression Hughes is writing in the guise of a character who doesn't mind cracking a shamelessly cheesy joke for the sake of entertaining a group of friends or strangers, especially if it means breaking the ice at a trendy party. It's all in good fun, but where he runs into problems is the fact that his otherwise cornball humor often gets in the way of the music. On his sprawling double LP debut A Love Extreme, he blurred the lines between sarcasm and sincerity, a balance that Animals is mostly lacking.

Despite this being a leaner offering (12 tracks spread out over 41 minutes) it's sequenced as a double album and divided down the middle with its livelier cuts filling out the front half. Hughes once again plays around with a mixed bag of styles both old and new here: 'Zebra' mines Beck's slacker party-rap; 'Peacockin' Party' struts with the playful cockiness of an Eagles of Death Metal song; and 'Freaky Feedback Blues' takes on 70s AM soul (but it ain't no plastic soul). Predictably, the mellow cuts make up the back half and this is where Hughes excels the most and also manages to turn out a couple of truly sincere standout moments, like on the breezy piano driven 'Magic Summertime', where he delivers the kind of on-the-nose lines {"I knew in my heart you were the one to show me heaven for a while") you would expect to find on an inspirational quote meme, but in the context of the music, it's actually pretty touching.

Ironically the most poignant song here--the nearly-six minute 'Song For Nancy'-- is the one where you can't even make out what he is saying. His voice is scrambled to the point of sounding almost alien and submerged, leaving it up to the plodding beat, lugubrious pianos, clear-eyed acoustics, and warm organ to deliver what feels like a heartfelt message to a loved one who, for whatever reason, is no longer present. Songs in the Key of Animals lacks the focus of A Love Extreme, but then again, we're talking about an album that was supposedly written on the fly in the studio pretty much for the fuck of it. This is something he's received some flack over, but it's kind of hard to fault a guy for wanting to have a good time making music, even if the end result feels like one continuous pun.

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