Ben Folds / Nick Hornby: Lonely Avenue

Ben Folds / Nick Hornby: Lonely AvenueEver since this album was first announced as a project where Folds would be putting Hornby’s words to music, one question kept running through my head: since when does Ben Folds need help coming up with lyrics for story songs? I mean, the man has practically assumed the story-song-writer throne abdicated by Billy Joel, and almost all of his output is a story song of one kind or another. I mean, if you’re going to have help, you might as well have help from an award-winning novelist, but… Ben Folds needs an assist writing story songs? Really?

As it so happens, it’s not such a bad deal. Folds and Hornby have a mutual admiration society going on, so they’re on each other’s wavelength. And there are some great results from that collaboration, even though at its heart, Lonely Avenue lives up to its name – it’s a bit of a bummer of an album. At the very least, a lot of the songs deal with relationships fraught with mistakes; zoom in a little bit further, and quite a few of them concern themselves with infidelity of one kind or another. Lonely Avenue isn’t the sunniest album to arrive in the past year.

Not that this means there isn’t some great music on there. The highlight of the album is “Password”, which starts out painting its protagonist in a slightly creepy, stalker-ish light as he guesses his way through his significant other’s passwords. His confidence that he knows everything about her vanishes as soon as he gets far enough to figure out that – surprise, surprise – there’s another man. The dramatic payoff is nicely handled musically, and the rest of it is just a gorgeous song with some of the best vocal harmonies anyone recorded in 2010.

A close runner-up for the great harmonizing award goes to “Claire’s Ninth”, which deals with a child of divorced parents wishing she could have “two birthdays” like all of her friends, as opposed to the awkward event that she’s putting up with where various family members are barely maintaining civility.

Somewhat more raucous are songs like “Your Dogs” (a litany of complaints sung to a white-trash neighbor) and the other highlight of the album, “Levi Johnston’s Blues”, chronicling what was likely going through the mind of Bristol Palin’s boyfriend at about the time her mother was announced as a vice-presidential candidate. Its hilarious, not-safe-for-work lyrics are surprisingly apolitical – by the end of the song, no one mentioned in the lyrics really comes across as an angel, not even Johnston himself. And in places, despite the hard-driving chorus, the song is surprisingly pretty.

4 starsOverall, the music is great, and the lyrics are unusually dark – and yes, I do know that I’m talking about someone who once spun a radio hit out of a story about taking his then-girlfriend to get an abortion. Folds has never shied away from heavier lyrical material (and I love him for it), but Hornby’s words seem to lack the deft wit that Folds has used in crafting lyrics before – ironic, since the author of books such as “High Fidelity” isn’t without a sense of humor himself. Lonely Avenue is a lovely ride into some not-so-uplifting territory – music to go along with a rainy day.

Order this CD

  1. A Working Day (1:50)
  2. Picture Window (3:42)
  3. Levi Johnston’s Blues (5:15)
  4. Doc Pomus (4:13)
  5. Your Dogs (3:23)
  6. Practical Amanda (3:52)
  7. Claire’s Ninth (3:49)
  8. Password (5:21)
  9. From Above (4:04)
  10. Saskia Hamilton (3:09)
  11. Belinda (6:13)

Released by: Nonesuch
Release date: 2010
Total running time: 44:51

Ben Folds – Way To Normal

Ben Folds - Way To NormalBen Folds’ first entire album of new material since 2005’s Songs For Silverman (Supersunnyspeedgraphic really just being a compilation of material that had been tried out on limited-run EPs first), Way To Normal heralds Folds’ return to the U.S. (accompanied by the almost prerequisite seismic changes in his personal life), and as a result, the musical tone shifts wildly from song to song.

There are songs that are immediately accessible (the duet “You Don’t Know Me”, set to a drum machine beat with sampled strings, and “Cologne” and “Kylie From Connecticut”, both reminiscent of Folds’ best ballads), and some that may take a bit of time to grow accustomed to. “The Frown Song” is a nifty little number whose mosquito-like synths may be off-putting at first, and “Brainwashed” with its overpowering drum beat instantly brought New Radicals’ “You Get What You Give” to mind. “Errant Dog” and “Bitch Went Nuts” will appeal to fans of quirky Ben Folds Five numbers like “Song For The Dumped”. I can’t quite get my head around “Free Coffee”, but that’s simply because of the production choices made and not the song itself – there’s a very hissy, high-frequency sound running through most of the song that I just find irritating. As a fan of production-driven orchestrated rock, I’m all for trying out daring things at the mixing board, but if it drives the listener away, what’s the point?

3 out of 4The usual caveats apply to Folds’ music – no-holds-barred language (it definitely earns its dreaded “parental advisory” sticker on the cover) being chief among them – but long-term Folds fans will probably be (mostly) pleased. It’s just that there are a couple of tracks here that might throw even the devout followers; the album title itself seems to hint that Folds is trying to find his way back to normal (no, it’s not a text-message-speak-era typo of “way too normal”)…and maybe the next album will be a four-star offering once he gets there and life settles down a bit for him.

Order this CD

  1. Hiroshima (B-B-B-Benny Hit His Head) (3:37)
  2. Dr. Yang (2:30)
  3. The Frown Song (3:37)
  4. You Don’t Know Me featuring Regina Spektor (3:11)
  5. Before Cologne (0:53)
  6. Cologne (5:02)
  7. Errant Dog (2:24)
  8. Free Coffee (4:01)
  9. Bitch Went Nuts (3:06)
  10. Brainwascht (3:48)
  11. Effington (3:32)
  12. Kylie From Connecticut (4:44)

Released by: Sony
Release date: 2008
Total running time: 40:25