Singer-songwriter Ben Arthur is a University of Virginia alum who's traveled in the Dave Matthews Band's orbit. But when Arthur opens his new CD with "Mercy," a sardonic tale of sadomasochism set to a turntable riff, he sounds as if he's fallen under the spell of Warren Zevon. "It started as a lark, twistings in the dark / Tied up, what to do / Naked and black and blue . . . you're only happy when I'm on my knees."
When Arthur moves on to conjure other moods -- first with the neo-noir ballad "Stay," which resonates with slide guitar tones; then with the scratched-out funk track "Mary Ann," a song about pleasure denied; then with the languid guitar ode "Bloomed," a meditation on obsession -- there's nearly always a refreshing comic edge to his songwriting, albeit sometimes a dark one. And just when you think Arthur might have a promising future in country music, churning out amusing double-edged tunes, he brings in the twang and sharpens the scorn during "This Hurts You (More Than It Hurts Me)." The chorus pretty much says it all: "After all my years of suffering / It sure is nice to see / This hurts you more than it hurts me."
There are some missteps. Arthur clearly doesn't like to repeat himself, but his forays into acoustic guitar atmospherics and neo-psychedelia don't add up to much -- or at least nowhere near as much as the storytelling.
-- Mike Joyce
Appearing Monday at IOTA. * To hear a free Sound Bite from Ben Arthur, call Post-Haste at 202-334-9000 and press 8134. (Prince William residents, call 703-690-4110.)