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

Ben Folds – Supersunnyspeedgraphic: The LP

Ben Folds - Supersunnyspeedgraphic: The LPCollecting remixes and re-recordings of material from Ben Folds’ trio of 2003-2005 EP releases, as well as a couple of soundtrack songs, side projects and a new song or two, Supersunnyspeedgraphic is both a lot of fun and somewhat baffling. Baffling in that, as often happens with complation/best-of albums, I would’ve picked some completely different songs in places, and a lot of fun in that these aren’t necessarily the same recordings as heard before on those short releases.

In songs like Folds’ cover of The Darkness’ “Get Your Hands Off My Woman”, and the originals “Learn To Live With What You Are” and “There’s Always Someone Cooler Than You”, the new recordings (or the old recordings with new elements) raise the game to a whole new level. Synthetic instrumentation is replaced with the real deal (such as “Learn To Live”‘s lush new string section), and the performances are ramped up considerably (there are vast oceans of difference between Folds’ first cover of “Get Your Hands Off My Woman” and this new one).

Speaking of cover songs, the centerpiece of the whole endeavour has to be Folds’ cover of Dr. Dre’s gansta rap number “Bitches Ain’t Shit”. Taking the whole things right out of its rap context, Folds transforms it into an almost pretty exercise in piano pop whose lyrics (of which not one syllable has been changed from the original) suddenly sound completely absurd. Folds has apparently spent some quality time with cohort and video director Weird Al Yankovic, because this is one of those things that it seems like Weird Al would’ve done. It’s got every profanity in the book in it, but it’s funny enough to merit at least one listen.

“Still” (from Folds’ contributions to the Over The Hedge soundtrack) and “Bruised” (from the all-star collaboration The Bens) appear here as well, rounding things out nicely, but I can’t help but wonder where songs like “Kalamazoo” (from the Super D EP) and “Wandering” are. Without knowing for sure, it could be that the songs Folds reprises here in their new form are songs that he didn’t feel quite “finished” with, whereas near-masterpieces like the above mentioned songs were completed to his satisfaction. I would’ve put these on the tracklist for Supersunnyspeedgraphic long before In Between Days (an energetic cover of the Cure song) or Rent-A-Cop would’ve 3 out of 4wound up there, if it had been my choice.

Still, for those who weren’t hardcore enough to invest in the three EP releases from which much of this material comes, Supersunnyspeedgraphic is a nice enough summation of that work, and clears the decks of unfinished business so we can look forward to a completely new album.

Order this CD

  1. In Between Days (2:54)
  2. All U Can Eat (3:04)
  3. Songs Of Love (3:37)
  4. There’s Always Someone Cooler Than You (4:11)
  5. Learn To Live With What You Are (4:27)
  6. Bitches Ain’t Shit (4:10)
  7. Adelaide (3:12)
  8. Rent A Cop (5:08)
  9. Get Your Hands Off My Woman featuring Corn Mo (3:35)
  10. Bruised (4:34)
  11. Dog (4:27)
  12. Still (7:46)

Released by: Sony
Release date: 2006
Total running time: 51:05


Over The Hedge – music by Rupert Gregson-Williams

Over The Hedge soundtrackA pleasant selection of Rupert Gregson-Williams’ lively orchestral score combined with about an EP’s worth of material both new and familiar from Ben Folds, the CD from Dreamworks’ Over The Hedge may just be 2006’s most underrated soundtrack.

The score tracks are unapologetically bold and colorful, but it’s not without subtleties. Instead of going for the usual Carl Stalling-esque tendencies (not that there’s anything wrong with Stalling) for scoring a movie aimed at kids, Rupert Gregson-Williams delivers a rather in-your-face dramatic underscore. It’s fun and full of action. It seems like movie and TV music has tried to get away from this sort of full-blooded orchestral treatment in recent years, in favor of electronics or techno or ethnic/exotic music. There’s room for all of those styles on the same music shelf, and I can honestly say that I just don’t hear enough music like this these days – my compliments to the maestro.

Ben Folds’ contributions are a little more varied; I find myself shrugging a bit at the watered-down remake of “Rockin’ The Suburbs” (though I’d say it’s still worth it for the William Shatner rant that takes the place of at least one whole verse), but “Family Of Me” and “Still” won’t disappoint Folds fans. The latter rambles on a bit, so naturally, it’s on the album in two forms. “Trapped In The Supermarket” is another track that one has to be in the right mood for; its lyrics are a bit repetitive, so its strongest appeal lies in Folds’ relentlessly good musicianship and vocals.

Rating: 4 out of 4Rather than being yet another piece of tie-in merchandise for a massively-marketed kids’ movie, Over The Hedge makes for good listening material. I originally picked it up for the Ben Folds songs, but have wound up playing the whole thing quite a few times over the past several months – it’s all worth a listen.

    Order this CD in the Store

  1. Family Of Me – Ben Folds (1:28)
  2. RJ Enters The Cave (4:37)
  3. The Family Awakes (2:33)
  4. Heist – Ben Folds (3:02)
  5. Lost In The Supermarket – Ben Folds (3:30)
  6. Let’s Call It Steve (3:40)
  7. Hammy Time (2:28)
  8. Still – Ben Folds (2:38)
  9. Play? (1:49)
  10. Rockin’ The Suburbs (Over The Hedge version) – Ben Folds & William Shatner (4:57)
  11. The Inside Heist (7:38)
  12. RJ Rescues His Family (4:18)
  13. Still (Reprise) – Ben Folds (6:07)

Released by: Epic
Release date: 2006
Total running time: 48:45

Ben Folds – Songs For Silverman

Ben Folds - Songs For SilvermanWith a portfolio that includes such ironic Generation X anthems as “Song For The Dumped”, “Rockin’ The Suburbs” and collaborations with William Shatner and Weird Al Yankovic, it may be easy to pigeonhole Ben Folds as a wacky alt-rock guy, and for a while, even he might have been content with that label. But his latest album, Songs For Silverman, is a bit less loaded down with that almost prerequisite irony – it’s a finely crafted, mature collection that, while not without moments of humor, acknowledges that the artist (and, perhaps, his fan base) is growing up.

There are several standouts among the introspective set of songs here; “Bastard” laments how we all get more set in our ways and inflexible as we get older; this song really sets a lot of the album’s tone – it’s steeped in the pure pop songwriting and performance sensibilities of the 1970s, the age of Carole King and James Taylor and Billy Joel and pre-African-percussion-obsessed Paul Simon. I realize that the Billy Joel comparison is nothing new where Ben Folds is concerned, but the comparison has evolved beyond the superficial one-man-and-his-piano similarities here.

“You To Thank”, “Trusted” and “Landed” are further examples of Folds’ rooted-in-the-70s style for this album, being a particular combination of lush and bluesy at the same time, with “Landed” being possibly the best thing on the album and a wise (yet unconventional) choice for a lead single. “Jesusland” is a slightly ironic travelogue through the American midwest with some nice string work and great vocal harmonies.

For those fans who, like myself, eagerly snatched up Folds’ three between-albums solo EPs in 2003 and 2004, Songs For Silverman contains only one of those songs: a surprisingly earnest, country-fried rendition of “Give Judy My Notice”. I was taken aback to hear this particular song re-recorded with pedal steel guitar, but at the same time, Folds’ own inclination toward a southern twang makes it authentic, and I quickly grew to like this version better.

Another highlight of the whole album is “Time”, a song that really made me appreciate what a fantastic voice Folds has. I’ve always liked his voice, but something about Songs For Silverman‘s stripped-down, spare style brings the vocals to the forefront. (Speaking of vocals, “Time” features some great backing vocals credited to the aforementioned Mr. Al Yankovic, someone else whose voice tends to be underrated.)

In short, a fantastic album, one of the best things I’ve heard this year. It may not have the “punch line” of Rockin’ The Suburbs, but Songs For Silverman doesn’t need a punch line. There are still plenty of instances of 4 out of 4classic Ben Folds humor on his recent series of EPs (and again, I can’t recommend strongly enough that fans pick those CDs up, because Folds as made a whole album’s worth of material in the interval between Suburbs and Silverman, and none of it has been “reject” material). Songs For Silverman is a fine example of some damned good songwriting, something for which Ben Folds is long overdue some credit.

Order this CD

  1. Bastard (5:23)
  2. You To Thank (3:36)
  3. Jesusland (4:30)
  4. Landed (4:28)
  5. Gracie (2:40)
  6. Trusted (4:08)
  7. Give Judy My Notice (3:37)
  8. Late (3:58)
  9. Sentimental Guy (3:03)
  10. Time (4:30)
  11. Prison Food (4:15)

Released by: Epic / Sony
Release date: 2005
Total running time: 44:12


Ben Folds – Ben Folds Live

Ben Folds - Ben Folds LiveCulled from the tour supporting of his excellent 2001 album Rockin’ The Suburbs, Ben Folds Live gives us a chance to hear Folds unplugged – just one man and his piano…as if that’s somehow a limitation. Folds makes the best of some of the more “produced” numbers by getting the audience to provide some backup (most notably on “Army”, which demonstrates that there were a lot of damn good singers in his audience that night, as does “Not The Same”). In other cases – “Fred Jones Part 2”, “The Luckiest” and “Jane” among them – he doesn’t need any elaborate backing; the songs are strong enough to stand on their own merits.

Some lesser-known live chestnuts of the Ben Folds Five era also pop up, including the excellent “Silver Street”, and even a cover of Elton John’s “Tiny Dancer” makes the list. Folds himself is quiet and unassuming, occasionally introducing the songs with a preamble explaining their origins, but he doesn’t go on and on about it. At one point, he interrupts the intro to “Brick “to assure everyone present that the abortion-themed number has no political agenda, but merely relays the raw emotions of the event, and then promptly 4 out of 4apologizes for stopping her performance for that explanation. Without even trying to be funny, he still is – and I think all this adds up to something called showmanship without being overly showy.

Definitely one of the better live albums I’ve heard, and certainly good enough to convince me to jump at the chance to see Folds live should he pass this way anytime soon.

Order this CD

  1. One Angry Dwarf And 200 Solemn Faces (4:17)
  2. Zak And Sara (3:24)
  3. Silver Street (3:41)
  4. Best Imitation Of Myself (3:13)
  5. Not The Same (4:31)
  6. Jane (2:34)
  7. One Down (4:03)
  8. Fred Jones Part 2 (4:40)
  9. Brick (4:45)
  10. Narcolepsy (6:04)
  11. Army (3:41)
  12. The Last Polka (3:55)
  13. Tiny Dancer (5:23)
  14. Rock This Bitch (1:17)
  15. Philosophy (7:17)
  16. The Luckiest (4:39)
  17. Emaline (3:50)

Released by: Epic
Release date: 2002
Total running time: 71:14

Ben Folds – Speed Graphic

Ben Folds - Speed GraphicThe first in a promised trilogy of short EPs of songs-in-progress, Ben Folds’ Speed Graphic sits nicely alongside the equally-cryptically-titled Sunny 16 as a sample of what might be on the way – again, there’s no guarantee that any of these tunes will make it to Folds’ next album.

Speed Graphic kicks off with a jaunty cover of The Cure’s “In Between Days”, a song I never would’ve expected to hear Folds do in a million years. But by the end of the track, he’s made the song his own without sacrificing the frenetic pace of the Cure’s original.

By contrast, “Give Judy My Notice” is one of the better ballads Ben Folds has graced us with in quite a while, though the lyrics take an unusual turn toward the end (and that’s all I’m gonna say). This wouldn’t have been out of place on Rockin’ The Suburbs.

A hoppin’ number that’ll please longtime Folds fans, “Protection” is very much in the “Jackson Cannery” vein. I’m not sure what else to say about this, other than that I experienced a “what the hell?” moment when the song ends on a drum solo. Nothing wrong with that, just that I certainly wasn’t expecting it!

This we follow up with “Dog”, which turns out to be one of my favorite Folds songs in a long time. Maybe it’s my mind subconsciously invoking the comparison based on the subject matter, but I could swear that Folds is trying to summon the spectre of pianist Vince Guaraldi (of Charlie Brown TV special fame). The music hops along in a way that’s just begging for Snoopy to hop right along with it. The lyrics are sung from the dog’s point of view, including trying to figure out why his person is “stuck in a cage with a headrest.” It probably catchier 4 out of 4than I can even explain here. There’s a little surprise at the end too.

Wandering back into ballad territory, “Wandering” has all the hallmarks of a last-song-on-the-album track, with an easygoing melody, a slow but steady pace, and it sidetracks into some nice piano solo work. It’s a nice closer for this five-song set, and promises much for Folds’ next full album.

Order this CD

  1. In Between Days (2:57)
  2. Give Judy My Notice (4:02)
  3. Protection (4:39)
  4. Dog (4:32)
  5. Wandering (5:01)

Released by: Epic
Release date: 2003
Total running time: 21:11