Music

Album Review: Ben&Ben Dig Deep and Scrawl Truths in Sophomore Release

Have you listened to Pebble House Volume 1: Kuwaderno yet?
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Unlike in years past when one need only look at record sales and song charts, it’s much tougher to measure just how successful a musical artist is these days. But however way popularity and accomplishment are gauged, there’s little doubt Ben&Ben are right up there as one of, if not the biggest in Filipino music today. (And we’re not just talking about the fact that there’s nine of them in the group). 

Consider the numbers: 3.3 million monthly listeners on Spotify; 2.3 million Facebook followers; 2.1 million subscribers on their official YouTube page; and millions more on Instagram, Twitter, and other social media platforms. And we haven’t even touched on the fact that they’ve won numerous industry awards, performed in several festivals both here and abroad, and have written songs for (and even acted in) a number of movies.

Photo by Sony Music Philippines.

After the critical and commercial success of their debut Limasawa Street in 2019, the pressure was on to break the so-called “sophomore slump” and come up with a follow-up that not only proves that their early success isn’t a fluke, but that establishes them as the pre-eminent artist of their generation. We’re happy to report that they did just that with Pebble House Volume 1: Kuwaderno.

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Named after the house where the band quarantined together as a unit during the pandemic (as well as an allusion to a kuwaderno or journal), the album is a thoughtful, multilayered exploration of the extraordinary times we’re living in. This, I think, is the first triumph of the band: by choosing to live together and consciously channeling their energies into a single purpose, there is an assurance of a final product that has gone through the wringer of nine individual voices, tastes, and sensibilities. This album is Ben&Ben in their purest, unadulterated form, and is perhaps the most important OPM release to have come out so far during the pandemic.

Pebble House Volume 1: Kuwaderno is an open window that lets us take a peek into the hearts and souls of artists unsatisfied with the mundanity of “how things are usually done.” After easing us in with a dreamy instrumental intro, we get “Kasayaw,” a snappy pop gem that sounds like something Gary Valenciano could have released in his late 80s, early 90s heyday.

Because of their aforementioned stature as the band of now, Ben&Ben had no trouble recruiting a number of big names to join in on the fun. Parokya ni Edgar’s Chito Miranda was one of those who heeded the call, bringing with him his cheeky persona to “Swimming Pool,” a song with a brilliant, early-2000s-British-indie-rock-vibe (think Bloc Party) electric guitar intro that segues into verses that compare life to things like a football field, samgyupsal (Korean BBQ), and yes, the titular swimming pool.

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There’s a track with the Manila String Machine called “Elyu,” which just might be the next “senti” song for people while on the drive up to that surf spot up north, and then a big number with FOB (friend of the band) Moira Dela Torre called “Pasalubong.” There’s no denying the star power of a Ben&Ben x Moira collab, and as slow duets go, this one isn’t bad. I could’ve gone without the “kaibigan or mag-ibigan” wordplay though (give it a rest!), but that’s just nitpicking.

Thematically, the next few songs are the strongest. “Magpahinga” is a direct reference to the sheer exhaustion we’re all feeling amidst the current situation; “Lunod” takes things a step further and is actually a commentary on mental health issues (with a little help from IV of Spades’ Zild and Juan Karlos); and “Sabel” is a minimalist feminist anthem that reminded me of indigenous peoples’ tribal chants, with KZ Tandingan lending her powerful vocals to the song.

Ben&Ben re-enlists the help of local boy band SB19 in “Kapangyarihan,” perhaps the most pointed criticism the band offers toward the people who wield power and are using it to exploit those without. The song stops short of actually naming names, but the subtext is clear for those willing to clear the film from their eyes and the plugs from their ears.

“Sugat” is a song with Muni-Muni about acceptance and healing, while “Upuan” a tip of the hat to old-school Ben&Ben: a brisk beat, vocal harmonies, polished production, and a catchy chorus.

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The last two songs (along with “Upuan”) constitute the final act of this “journal” and the band chooses to go out with an uplifting, joyous message. “Ilang Tulog Na Lang,” is a proper love song that hearkens back to old-timey jazz standards, while the big closer “Kayumanggi” is a love song to us as Filipinos: brown-skinned, flawed, and proud. I could hear a resemblance to Salvador Sobral’s big Eurovision winner “Amar pelos dois,” and that’s a good thing. Both are sweet songs with a simple, universal message. 

Pagka panganak hanggang sa paghimlay, yakapin ang kulay,” they sing. Now that’s true love right there.

Music always tends to hold a mirror up to society in general, and truly important and groundbreaking art usually follows significant upheavals. In Ben&Ben’s case, it’s become clear that Pebble House Volume 1: Kuwaderno has become an essential timestamp of how the world is now and what our place in it is. I’ve no doubt we’ll be coming back to this album years from now to get a sense of where we were and how we lived.

At this point in their careers, it would’ve been easy for the band to blame the pandemic, claim quarantine fatigue, and just churn out feel-good songs about first crushes and shallow romances. But the fact that they so obviously didn’t, that they dug deep and swept their insides for what truly matters to them, and that they’re using their platform to talk about social issues are all clear signs that Ben&Ben’s stature as one of the most important voices in OPM is no fluke.

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Paul John Caña
Associate Editor, Esquire Philippines
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