Ben Folds Five – The Sound Of The Life Of The Mind

Ben Folds Five - The Sound Of The Life Of The MindBack when Ben Folds embarked on his solo career, I distinctly remember listening to some of the songs and thinking that the difference in style wasn’t enough to justify dissolving the band; The Unauthorized Biography Of Reinhold Messner was already a significant departure from the strictly-piano-and-drums-and-fuzz-bass sound that Ben Folds Five started out with, so where was the dividing line where this album was still Ben Folds Five, but the next album’s material was no longer suitable? (As it turned out, the dividing line was actually the distance from South Carolina to Australia – Folds moved down under to get married.)

With Folds now back in the United States, it was only a matter of time before the most obvious idea in the world, namely getting the band back together, occurred to Folds instead of just to the fans. And while Sony would probably have been more than happy for the group to get back into the studio, Folds opted to crowd-fund the recording sessions, with incentives such as downloads for those who helped foot the bill for the band’s reunion. The result is The Sound Of The Life Of The Mind, an album that’s better than I had dared hope. The opening track, “Erase Me”, is enough to make you think that Ben Folds Five was never away.

Once past the lead track, however, we finally get the promise of a post-Reinhold Messner Ben Folds Five, and it confirms my feeling, from the early 21st century, that there was no need to break up the band in the first place. Songs like “Sky High”and “Michael Praytor, Five Years Later” split the difference between Folds’ more orchestrated solo work and the Ben Folds Five sound, though the balance tips toward one extreme or the other elsewhere: “On Being Frank” is a lush ballad about a hanger-on in Frank Sinatra’s entourage suddenly being cut loose, and sounds much more like Folds’ solo work. The opposite end of the scale, and the most Ben Folds Five-like tune on the album, is also the catchiest: “Draw A Crowd” has a punchy melody, though the lyrics of the chorus (“if you can’t draw a crowd, draw dicks on the wall”) will sadly cheat it out of any kind of radio airplay, which it richly deserves – the tune is just an insanely catchy earworm.

The lead single, instead, is “Do It Anyway”, a half-sung, half-spoken ode to reckless youthful abandon and poor decision-making. (Hell, I feel like I’m 25 years old again just listening to it.) The last three songs on the album are less frantic and more contemplative, as is often the case as Folds closes out an album (with or without the rest of his band).

The Sound Of The Life Of The Mind is a rare reunion album. It’s been over 15 years since I was introduced to Ben Folds Five, back when a friend dropped by my place to cheer me up while I was 4 out of 4recovering from a fairly rough surgery experience and played Whatever And Ever, Amen for me, and rather than sounding like a pale echo of its original sound, Ben Folds Five’s latest has the same irresistible appeal as the group did the first time I heard them, even though the group’s sound has evolved. Fans will probably latch onto it instantly, and after all this time off the map, Ben Folds Five might just find a few new fans too.

Order this CD

  1. Erase Me (5:15)
  2. Michael Praytor, Five Years Later (4:32)
  3. Sky High (4:42)
  4. The Sound Of The Life Of The Mind (4:13)
  5. On Being Frank (4:34)
  6. Draw A Crowd (4:14)
  7. Do It Anyway (4:23)
  8. Hold That Thought (4:14)
  9. Away When You Were Here (3:31)
  10. Thank You For Breaking My Heart (4:50)

Released by: Sony
Release date: September 18, 2012
Total running time: 44:28

Broken Bells – Broken Bells

The brainchild of Brian “Danger Mouse” Burton (of Gnarls Barkley fame) and James Mercer, Broken Bells is a project overflowing with just the right production and just the right songs. Either of these on their own would make for an outstanding album, but together they make for one of the musical discoveries I’m most excited about this year. It’s an unlikely marriage of acoustic guitars, spacey modern electronic production, and some outstanding old-school songwriting chops.

There’s really not a dud on the entire album, which is quite a slam dunk for a new act (albeit a new act formed by two seasoned veterans of other projects). Even the songs that don’t quite tickle my fancy have moments within them that almost make it seem like the music’s suddely gone from small-screen to widescreen. There’s even a song or two where the song stops in the middle of the track and abruptly switches to a new musical idea altogether, which I’d count points off for if not for the fact that both halves of the song are engaging and catchy.

The retro-80s-funk-styled single “The Ghost Inside” got some decent exposure (thanks in no small part to a sci-fi-themed video featuring Mad Men’s resident redhead Catherine Hendricks), but that song is just the tip of the iceberg, as well as a perfect taster for the rest of the album. The album itself kicks off with another single, “The High Road”, which relies on a leaner production style than songs such as “Your Head Is On Fire”, “Sailing To Nowhere” and “Trap Door”. The 4 out of 4arrangements are immaculate and occasionally grandiose, but not in a bad way – and it doesn’t hurt that some of the songs have what I call “ELO moments.”

Hopefully Broken Bells isn’t just a one-off; it’d be very interesting to hear this sound evolve further. Great songs, well produced: that’s the kind of music I love. This is the best album I’ve heard so far in 2010.

Order this CD

  1. The High Road (3:52)
  2. Vaporize (3:29)
  3. Your Head Is On Fire (3:04)
  4. The Ghost Inside (3:18)
  5. Sailing To Nowhere (3:46)
  6. Trap Doors (3:19)
  7. Citizen (4:29)
  8. October (3:39)
  9. Mongrel Heart (4:23)
  10. The Mall And Misery (4:07)

Released by: Columbia
Release date: 2010
Total running time: 37:26

The John Baker Tapes, Volume 1: BBC Radiophonics

The John Baker Tapes, Volume 1As one of the early geniuses who performed, composed and experimented as the legendary (and now sadly defunct) BBC Radiophonic Workshop, the late John Baker created offbeat music and special sounds that fitted in perfectly with the Workshop’s “house style” (if indeed it can be said to have had one), and yet Baker’s pieces have something that make them uniquely his: just a little bit of soul. Which is a good trick to pull off when you’re making sounds by manipulating tape recordings of “found sounds” into music.

This volume concentrates almost exclusively on his output from the Radiophonic Workshop, much of it consisting of work for the BBC’s regional radio stations. The station IDs (or, as they’re called here, “idents”) were different for Radio London than for Radio Sheffield, for example – all giving Baker an opportunity to make music out of things like the sound of water pouring from a bottle, a ruler tapping the edge of a table and so on.

Of all the Radiophonic Workshop’s mad acoustic scientists, Baker seemed to have a distinctly jazzy sensibility; some of his tracks here turn his unusual sounds into a whole new sub-genre of “crime jazz” soundtrack music, with a dark, sinister feel to them. Unlike some of his peers, Baker was unafraid to mix “real” instruments in with his radiophonic sounds, and it’s in these darkly jazzy tracks the sound of a sax or a real bass guitar can make all the difference in mood. Many of his radio idents are bubbly and cheerful, and there are a few cues, intended as underscores for radio dramas and other programs, that have their own distinctive feel.

One of the most interesting tracks is a recording of Baker himself, appearing on one of the radio programs for which he’d created some very distinctive music, responding to listeners’ queries about how the music was made. He dissects the piece of music down to individual elements (which may or may not have been on a true multitrack tape – often in the 1950s and early 1960s, the Workshop had to “multitrack” by manually starting different tape playback machines and hoping that they’d sync up – and having to start over if they didn’t).

I’ve eagerly snapped up the various BBC Radiophonic Workshop reissues and retrospectives issued in recent years, and I’m happy to report very little material repeated from those collections; even if 4 out of 4you’ve got a fairly exhaustive Radiophonic Workshop collection, much of this material will still be new to you, so volume 1 of The John Baker Tapes isn’t a waste of money. It’s an invaluable archive offering an educational insight into early advances in electronic music, as explored by one of its unsung innovators.

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  1. Newstime BBC (0:23)
  2. Tros Y Gareg (Main Theme) (2:50)
  3. Tros Y Gareg (Idents) (0:21)
  4. 20th Century Focus (2:24)
  5. Vendetta: The Ice Cream Man (1:19)
  6. Woman’s Hour (Reading Your Letters) (1:47)
  7. Many A Slip (0:58)
  8. Look And Read (0:36)
  9. Building The Bomb (6:26)
  10. Au Printemps (2:28)
  11. Big Ben News Theme (0:33)
  12. Codename (1:03)
  13. Decimal Currency (0:20)
  14. Barnacle Bill (0:21)
  15. Dial M For Murder (2:25)
  16. Farm Management (0:31)
  17. Radio Sheffield (News Idents) (0:45)
  18. French Science And Technology (0:40)
  19. Good Morning Wales (Idents) (0:37)
  20. Heavy Plant Crossing (0:59)
  21. COI Technology Pavilion (9:31)
  22. John Baker Interview (Radio Nottingham) (2:34)
  23. Radio Nottingham Idents (0:34)
  24. Look North: Newstime (0:50)
  25. Man Alive: UFO (1:15)
  26. PM – Computers In Business (0:40)
  27. Submarines (1:59)
  28. Oranges And Lemons (Radio London) (2:37)
  29. Orbit (0:47)
  30. Places For People (0:47)
  31. Sling Your Hook (2:28)
  32. Suivez La Piste (0:49)
  33. Scene (Never Never) (1:40)
  34. Diary Of A Madman (3:54)
  35. The Two O’Clock Spot (0:58)
  36. Radio London: News Idents (0:25)
  37. The Caves Of Steel (3:12)
  38. The Locusts (0:47)
  39. Square Two (0:30)
  40. The Tape Recorder (1:11)
  41. Tom Tom (Theme) (0:43)
  42. Tom Tom (Idents) (0:15)
  43. Trial (Opening Theme) (0:35)
  44. Trial (Closing Theme) (1:22)
  45. Vendetta The Sugar Man (2:01)
  46. Spin Off (0:21)
  47. Radiophonic FX C (0:10)
  48. Radiophonic FX A (0:54)
  49. Radiophonic FX B (0:34)

Released by: Trunk Records
Release date: 2008
Total running time: 72:09

Jason Falkner – Bedtime With The Beatles Part Two

Bedtime With The Beatles 2Arriving as a bit of a surprise in between albums of sublime original material, Jason Falkner’s original Bedtime With The Beatles had a curious mandate of its own: recasting Lennon-McCartney classics as lullabyes for little Beatle-fans-to-be. And so help me, it worked – I always thought it was an incredibly relaxing album, but I didn’t realize the true power of it until years later when my own first child came along. Bedtime With The Beatles was a godsend. The arrival of this second volume of Falkner’s lullabye arrangements came out of nowhere too; maybe it’s because I don’t keep up with very many artists via fansites or MySpace or what have you, but I didn’t know it was in the works, and eagerly picked it up, because now I knew how handy it could be. It wasn’t just a matter of my personal tastes for enjoyment – I had a kid who desperately needed some new sleepytime material.

The problem there, however, is that Falkner’s arrangements on this second volume are much more “involved.” Great from an active listening standpoint, but there’s simply too much going on for it to reach quite the same level of relaxation as the first volume. In places – I’m looking at you, “Penny Lane” – Bedtime Part Two almost ceases to by lullabye music and slides its toes adventurously over the line into downtempo lounge arrangements of the Beatles.

That’s not to say that nothing here lives up to the sleepytime potential of the first volume. “She’s Leaving Home” – which was very nearly a lullabye to begin with in its original form – is positively inspired, with “Here Comes The Sun” coming in a close second as my favorite. “Hey Jude” has low-key vocals-as-instruments that really straddle the line between relaxing and active enough that they demand attention. Some songs, such as “Norwegian Wood”, “Something” and “I Will” try very hard to reach for the sound of the original recordings, with more elaborate guitar work or production, and as such they become “active listening” material. With its back-tracked keyboards and chiming guitar chords, I can’t really imagine anyone drifting off to Falkner’s cover of “Norwegian Wood”.

3 out of 4And what does the little E think? Maybe it was just because it was new music to his ears, combined with his general tendency toward trying to avoid sleep at all costs, but my attempt to introduce him to Bedtime With The Beatles Part Two confirmed my suspicions: he got too involved with listening to it to really relax. But in the end, soft-pedaling my one-year-old into his indoctrination as a potential Beatles listener can’t be all bad – but it’s not all meant for bed either.

Order this CD

  1. Norwegian Wood (3:28)
  2. Something (3:37)
  3. She’s Leaving Home (4:33)
  4. Penny Lane (4:27)
  5. Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds (4:38)
  6. Here Comes The Sun (3:33)
  7. I Will (2:07)
  8. Hey Jude (5:08)
  9. Yesterday (2:36)
  10. Good Night (4:54)

Released by: Adrenaline
Release date: 2008
Total running time: 39:01

John Barrowman – Another Side

John Barrowman - Another SideBetter known for covering Cole Porter tunes and Broadway standards, John Barrowman takes his first swipe at mainstream pop – largely from the ’70s and ’80s – and reaches for the same earnestness and grandeur with that material. He manages to hit a few right out of the park, too – his covers of Billy Joel’s “She’s Always A Woman” and Elton John’s “Your Song” are winners. I’m not saying they’re replacing the originals in my musical affections, but they’re top-flight as reinterpretations go. There are even a few songs whose original records I don’t care for, but do enjoy here – Air Supply’s “All Out Of Love” and, perhaps most surprisingly of all, “Feeling Good”, a musical number that takes on an almost sinister air with Barrowman’s performance. I don’t know if that was actually the intention, but something about the arrangement and his vocal take on the song screams “seedy & dangerous” to me, which isn’t something that I get from the lyrics alone. (I’ll fess up here that I’m not a great consumer of musical theater, so I may be missing something in that context that has though in the know saying “Duh!” to me at this point.)

A few of these songs don’t quite soar that far, though – while they’re competent enough performances, the covers of the Police’s “Every Little Thing She Does Is Magic”, Bryan Adams’ “Heaven” and Cyndi Lauper’s “Time After Time” just don’t do much for me. Nice enough to listen to, but I didn’t go back and listen to them again immediately like I did “Feeling Good” and some of the others. The cover of Chicago’s “If You Leave Me Now” knocks the song down a few keys to fit Barrowman’s range (which certainly doesn’t seem to be lacking anywhere else on the album), and while it’s pleasant enough, a big part of the original song was its production; it’s an interesting reading, but Peter Cetera need not quake in his boots.

The album seems to peter out a little bit toward the end – Eric Carman’s “All By Myself” is a song I’ve always considered to be a flat attempt at a faux-epic power ballad, and it’s just not a favorite of mine, to put it charitably (I will fess up to also having a blind spot for break-up songs). Even Barrowman, making his best attempt, can’t elevate that material for me, and I wind up skipping that track quite a bit (or at least hitting stop early, since it’s the last thing on the album) and thinking dude, sing something else – anything else. Your mileage may vary, however – I admit upfront that I’ve not a fan of that number in general.

3 out of 4Overall, I find Another Side very enjoyable. Golden Throats, it ain’t – Barrowman has a renowned career in musical theater, whenever he’s not traveling in the TARDIS or taming treacherous terrors with Torchwood – but it is a departure for Barrowman’s standard-centric recording career. Still, the guy can flat-out sing, and I could probably tick off about a dozen more songs I’d like to hear him tackle.

Order this CD

  1. All Out Of Love (3:55)
  2. You’re So Vain (3:55)
  3. She’s Always A Woman (3:23)
  4. Time After Time (3:59)
  5. Weekend In New England (3:47)
  6. Every Little Thing She Does Is Magic (2:33)
  7. If You Leave Me Now (3:43)
  8. Your Song (3:19)
  9. Please Remember Me (4:22)
  10. Heaven (4:04)
  11. Being Alive (3:13)
  12. Feeling Good (3:59)
  13. All By Myself (4:25)

Released by: Sony / BMG
Release date: 2007
Total running time: 48:37

Lindsey Buckingham – Under The Skin

Lindsey Buckingham - Under The SkinPicking up work on a late ’90s solo album where he left off – originally, the album was called A Gift Of Screws and would’ve been a follow-up released only a few years after Out Of The Cradle – Lindsey Buckingham goes into territory that quite a few of his loyal fans will find unfamiliar: the music is stripped down to its bare essentials, sometimes almost all-acoustic, without the trademark elaborate studio production which became the trademark of his early work and his heyday with Fleetwood Mac. But there’s something just as elaborate about Under The Skin, though instead of studio trickery, what’s elaborate here is Buckingham’s sheer staggering musicianship.

The instrumentation is sparse, often consisting of layers of guitar (usually acoustic, though some electric work does sneak in here and there), simple percussion, and half-whispered, half-sung vocals. Vocals are often layered in and overdubbed, but the overall effect is deceptive – you think it’s a bit quieter than the fall-on rock songs Buckingham has given us in the past, but instead he’s almost forcing you to concentrate on the songs.

The songs are great this time around. When Out Of The Cradle was first released, I complained that Buckingham had charged us full “new album” price for an album that contained an awful lot of material that seemed like reheated Fleetwood Mac. This time around, he’s lived up to the songwriting chops that brought us rock classics like “Trouble” and “Go Your Own Way,” though where some of his past work sounded like songs that didn’t make it onto a Mac album, here they’re presented in a context where it’s hard to imagine a full-band sound on them. (Ironically, John McVie and Mick Fleetwood do actually play on “Down On Rodeo,” the Fleetwoodiest song of the bunch here; some of the Gift Of Screws songs were lifted from that project and handed over to Fleetwood Mac’s Say You Will, in some cases with minimal contributions from the other band members, and the tracks in question here may have been contenders for that album.)

The highlights include the Rolling Stones cover “I Am Waiting,” and the Buckingham originals “It Was You,” “Under The Skin” and “Cast Away Dreams” (let’s back up a little bit – for a renowned songwriter like Lindsey Buckingham, it really is unusual to hear a cover of someome else’s material). There’s another cover, Donovan’s “To Try For The Sun,” but it just doesn’t grab me despite being a nice enough song.

For those who aren’t grabbed by any of this material, and for some it may represent one stylistic Rating: 4 out of 4shift too far away from Buckingham’s full-blast rock sound, an album leaning more in that direction is promised for sometime in 2007 – that is, unless one remembers that every other solo project that Buckingham announces winds up becoming a Fleetwood Mac album. Only time, and the apparently irresistible lure of Stevie Nicks, will tell.

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  1. Not Too Late (4:42)
  2. Show You How (4:22)
  3. Under The Skin (3:57)
  4. I Am Waiting (3:34)
  5. It Was You (2:49)
  6. To Try For The Sun (3:14)
  7. Cast Away Dreams (4:28)
  8. Shut Us Down (3:57)
  9. Down On Rodeo (4:27)
  10. Something’s Gotta Change Your Mind (4:48)
  11. Flying Down Juniper (4:43)

Released by: Reprise
Release date: 2006
Total running time: 45:01

Blue Man Group – The Complex

Blue Man Group - The ComplexSo, Blue Man Group’s going to do an album with lyrics, eh? A rock album no less! But fear not – the Blues haven’t sold out. If anything, The Complex expands their repertoire in a way that keeps even their seasoned, long-time fans on their toes, and demonstrates that their distinctive instrumental sound can serve as the core of some great rock music.

The songs are everything from straight-ahead rockers to low-key alt-rock numbers, and some wild surprises. Did you ever think you’d hear Blue Man Group covering Jefferson Airplane’s “White Rabbit” or Blondie’s “I Feel Love”? Show of hands? Didn’t think so. And yet they do, with a melding of their own style and deft tributes to the original (with guest vocalist Esthero making “Rabbit” her own and paying homage to Grace Slick, if that’s not too much of a contradiction; Venus Hum waxes a bit more trippy on the “I Feel Love”). The Blues don’t do any singing themselves, instead inviting others to come in and play in their playground, including Dave Matthews and Tracy Bonham.

It’s Bonham’s turn at the microphone that gives The Complex one of its two most distinctive and powerful numbers, “Up To The Roof”, a great meld of confessional lyrics, passionate vocals and an amazing hard rockin’ chorus. You can hear the Blue Man Group sound underneath it all, and yet it’s more than just their sound – it’s a whole new canvas they’re exploring. The other big breakout number is the headbang-worthy “The Current”, with guest vocalist Gavin Rossdale providing a low-key counterpoint to the slammin’ guitar riff of the chorus. (As unlikely as Blue Man Group seemed for inclusion on the Terminator 3 soundtrack, “The Current” was an inspired choice for their contribution.)

As much as I liked their instrumental work in Audio – and there are still plenty of their trademark instrumentals to be Rating: 4 out of 4found on The Complex, including a few that rework some of Audio‘s better passages into the group’s new sound – this album is an evolution they had to make if limiting themselves to the sonic medium. I can’t say enough complimentary things about it that’ll make sense without you hearing it for yourself – highly recommended, and one of my favorite albums of the year.

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  1. Above (4:07)
  2. Time To Start (4:13)
  3. Sing Along (4:14)
  4. Up To The Roof (4:29)
  5. Your Attention (4:37)
  6. Persona (3:25)
  7. Piano Smasher (3:57)
  8. White Rabbit (5:02)
  9. The Current (5:28)
  10. I Feel Love (3:13)
  11. Shadows Part 2 (3:53)
  12. What Is Rock (3:21)
  13. The Complex (3:53)
  14. Exhibit 13 (3:57)
  15. Mandelbro7 (3:53)

Released by: Lava
Release date: 2003
Total running time: 61:44