Ben Folds
Way To Normal


I have no trouble admitting that the release of Songs For Silverman, three years ago, was for this writer a pleasant surprise. During the 90s I had acquired a certain familiarity, even if "from a distance", with the work of the US piano/bass/drums trio bizarrely called Ben Folds Five, which I have to admit had appeared to me as being worth of consideration more for the historical moment they found themselves working in - i.e., the "grunge" era - than for their own merits (and that's not to say they didn't have any). Even the group's last album before their split, The Unauthorized Biography Of Reinhold Messner (1999), though good, is not by any means the unqualified masterpiece the group's hardcore fans would want us to believe.

Songs For Silverman appeared as a successful effort that made a by now "classic" language whose antecedents were quite easy to spot sound "as new". Nice songs, an appropriate and versatile vocal approach, arrangements that showed a certain amount of good taste, lyrics that didn't appear as being too facile, fine instrumental performances, and a warm sound that was a practical invitation to turn up the volume. Investigating the subtleties of the playing styles of bassist Jared Reynolds and drummer Lindsay Jamieson was a lot of fun. So it was only logical that I was curious about what was to happen next.

In the meantime, Ben Folds released a CD featuring some semi-unreleased stuff, and a "live in the studio" DVD-V recorded and filmed in Nashville, the town he now calls home, besides playing live quite a bit. While waiting for the new album to appear, I found myself reading many critics' comment about Songs For Silverman - with increasing surprise, given the fact that words such as "mature", "middle age", "wise", "introspective", and so on were used (and definitely not as a compliment!), in so differently from words such as "exuberant" and "extroverted" that appeared almost every time the reviewer talked about Folds's old trio.

So reading that the new album, Way To Normal, signaled a return to form in the old style of the Ben Folds Five was for me more a source of puzzlement than enjoyment. I waited for the new album to be released.

On the cover of Way To Normal the familiar "Parental Advisory - Explicit Content - Strong Language" appears. Since I was curious to see the reason why, I opened the booklet, only to find... no lyrics at all! I got no satisfaction whatsoever from knowing that even the "de luxe" editions on the market (of which I had known nothing) have no lyrics. In fact, it appears that only the Japanese edition has them (in Japanese, too). So, before having a look on the Web, I listened to the album. And here I don't have words strong enough to express my discomfort.

In order to have an accurate experience, I decided to plug my headphones directly into my CD player's input. Volume was at a moderate level, but I felt like my head was falling off. I lowered the volume, decided that the first track, the mock-live Hiroshima, sporting a real audience, sounded absolutely atrocious. But - I reasoned - this is a "live" track, it starts the album... I decided to listen to track # 2, Dr. Yang. Which, if possible, sounded even worse. I could say I was reminded of the compression on the Beatles' Lady Madonna. But that had been intended as "an effect" (and a very good one), and it had been used with intelligence and taste, not this... thing. To put it in a nutshell, I found this CD to be absolutely impossible to listen to. Let's see why.

Way To Normal is only the last specimen of the "volume wars" that have albums sound louder and louder. The obvious consequences being: a "flat" sound, always on the brink of distortion, fatiguing, not at all "musical". It's obvious that somebody thought this album had to sound "competitive" - but with what? and on what platform? It goes without saying that we've all read about irate fans signing petitions about this or that album. Or about mastering engineers being quoted being ashamed of the sound they got, but "this was what I was asked to do" (by the record company, the management, even musicians themselves).

Way To Normal was absolutely impossible to listen to when my headphones were connected to my CD player, while using the input in my amplifier at least gave me the opportunity to use its tone controls. The best result were had by listening to the CD on my loudspeakers (a pair of studio monitors), but I always had to apply a drastic attenuation of the higher frequencies.

Imagine my surprise when I noticed that not a single review I've read mentioned this fact. Which cannot by any means be considered as "minor". The musicians who play on the album are impossible to recognize or appreciate, the piano is a mush, and when it comes to the vocals I have to say that it was while listening to this CD that I learned to fear the word "people" - not to mention assorted plosives, sibilants, and the saliva that I found myself trying to avoid. (Those who like to have precise examples have only to listen to the "f" of "thirty-five" at 1' 40" on Kylie, and those "p"s of "people" at 2' 39" on Effington.) This album could only sound "acceptable" when listened to while paying almost no attention at all to it (is this the kind of listener Way To Normal is looking for?). It goes without saying that in the age of free downloading having paid good money for this rubbish didn't put me in a fine mood...

Whatever the reason, it's obvious that Ben Folds's intention when making Way To Normal was to have an album that was more "exuberant" than its predecessor. Which is not, by itself, bad news, 'cept for the fact that the chosen sound makes listening to this "lively" stuff quite tiring. I suspect that Folds himself felt the need to give the album more variety by featuring two slow tunes with piano and strings at the end of each "side", but though they are quite good (besides having been mastered by Bob Ludwig, who obviously cannot perform miracles) these songs suffer from a typical case of "overcompensation", being too long and baroque when a bit more brevity would have been preferable.

With the exception of a quote from a song by Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young, it looks like for this album Folds had a certain "classic" Made in U.K. sound on his mind. Provided I'm not hallucinating, I found traces of Paul McCartney's Beatles, Queen, Kinks, Small Faces, Who, and 10cc, especially in their "5cc" period; funny to notice how sometimes Folds appears to "hear" the Beatles as filtered by Eric Stewart in his "McCartney" mode.

Hiroshima is a good opener, with a "Japanese-sounding" string quartet and some lively "audience participation". Dr. Yang sounds at times quite similar to a pneumatic drill, with Folds's vocals sounding quite similar to Eric Stewart's with a pinch of Steve Marriott added. The Frown Song sounds just like your classic "British salad", with the verses in the style of martial Kinks à la Autumn Almanac, and the choruses à la McCartney; there's also a nice piano, and a strange Mini-Moog. You Don't Know Me is the "potential hit" here: a duo with Regina Spektor that rubbed me the wrong way and had me looking at my watch a lot earlier than the end; there's an uncredited string section, and some hideous keyboards. Cologne is a fine melodic track that suffers for reasons already discussed above.

Errant Dog sounds more than a bit like the Small Faces, Steve Marriott's accent included; it's not too ambitious, but al least it's funny. Free Coffee is the album's strangest track, and in some ways its best: strange techno "glitches", piano, and vocals... sounding quite like Roger Daltrey's (just listen to the pronunciation of the word "food"), it all reminded me of kaftans-era Who; strange-sounding synth on the finale. Bitch Went Nuts is one of the best tracks here, lively, with traces of Queen. Brainwascht left me totally cold. Effington is not bad, with an apparent Queen vibe at its start, and a literal quote from Déjà Vu at 1' 42". Kylie is a nice album closer, though a bit more conciseness would have definitely been preferable.

Now what?

Beppe Colli

© Beppe Colli 2008 | Oct. 9, 2008