Ben Folds/Nick Hornby
were the words that I chose, two years ago, to conclude my review of the
new Ben Folds album, Way To Normal. It goes without saying that at the
time I was quite puzzled, since I had expected that album to be the definitive
proof of Ben Fold's artistic maturity, as he had so successfully demonstrated
three years earlier with Songs For Silverman, an album that appeared to
signal a new synthesis.
course, it's entirely possible for one thing to be underappreciated for
a variety of reasons. And while the main reasons for my disliking said
album were its brittle sound and its total lack of dynamics (a sure sign
of music having been overcompressed), most reviews I happened to read lamented
the album's (perceived) immaturity and biliousness. A funny paradox, this,
when one considers that the tone of its predecessor, Songs For Silverman,
had been regarded as too serious and mature, almost middle-age; so one
cannot help but draw the conclusion that those (mostly) US critics did
not regard Way To Normal's new vivacity as being of their preferred kind.
Me, I have to confess that I raised my eyebrows when I noticed that none
of the reviews I read (and yes, I checked again the other day, just to
make sure) mentioned any sound problems or anomalies (but not for any kind
of issues relating to word-count, said reviews being, on average, about
4,500 characters in length), those writers preferring to elaborate on the
immediately say that - sure, there are important differences, of which
in a moment or two - to me this new Ben Folds album appears to be the real
successor to Songs For Silverman. But it seems to me that, at the moment
of this writing, at least, Lonely Avenue hasn't received any significant
amount of attention from most media, though it presents a new writing partner
(a famous name: Nick Hornby), and a new record company (which I imagine
hasn't been idle in the months that preceded the album's release). Lonely
Avenue is the kind of album that once would have been called "a grower";
but with an avalanche of new releases appearing every day, and the kind
of pointillistic attention from both writers and audience, I really doubt
that today an album has any real chance to "grow" anymore.
brings me to this: In many ways, Lonely Avenue can (also) be seen as an
update of many "classic genres from the tradition" as seen from
a modern perspective (but not "post-modern" or "ironic"),
thanks to those "traditional skills" called: composition, arrangement,
performance, sound recording, mixing, mastering, and pressing, i.e., the
whole creative chain. The album is extremely dense and layered (which doesn't
mean it's not accessible), rich with many instrumental colours that attentive
listeners will have fun investigating for a long time. But it's precisely
the lack of attention for this kind of matters that demonstrates (to me),
one more time, that the amount of space given by the media to those big
names of "classic pop" - The Beatles, The Beach Boys, Burt Bacharach,
and so on - and to their influence (be it real or supposed) on "young
names" is only given to those names as "brands", not to
their music. And it's funny to see that, after reading a few reviews of
Lonely Avenue, I still had no idea of what instruments were featured on
Folds Adds Music And Melody To Nick Hornby's Words". As stated on
the album cover, Hornby's words are the starting point. I was glad to read
a few transatlantic exchanges on the Web, discussing the likeliness that
a certain expression could sound realistic when told by a US person. Here
I have to confess it was only 'cause I read about it that I noticed that
the album's lyrics had not been written by Folds, given the fact that he
has always written songs that feature little stories and vignettes. At
close inspection, it's the structure of the lyrics that's different: these
are really "pocket histories" set to music, not "song lyrics".
another famous name: Paul Buckmaster, who arranges and conducts the orchestra.
The result was not to be assumed as being great, however, as anyone can
see by listening to Still, the last track in the assemblage of diverse
Folds tracks going under the name Supersunnyspeedgraphic, The LP: the song
is quite mediocre, as is the arrangement. On Lonely Avenue, however, Buckmaster
hits the bull's eye, with a skillful use of a string section (twenty people,
with seven winds being added on one track). At times his work is really
easy to recognize: who else could write that crescendo that appears (twice)
on Belinda, or those unison patterns that animate Levi Johnston's Blues?
instruments: again, we have Jared Reynolds on bass and Sam Smith on drums;
also featured: Chad Chaplin, mostly on percussion; and Andrew Hughley,
on various keyboards, etc. Lotsa attention was paid to the vocal parts,
which are rich and detailed. Surprise: While checking the credits I noticed
that on a few tracks all the instruments are played by Ben Folds.
Working Day is a fine starting point: brief, light, varied, the song is
an ideal bridge between Way To Normal and this album. Lively drums, overdriven
Window is a piano ballad with an interesting melodic development, well
sung by Folds, two double basses being added to the string section.
Wurlitzer electric piano and the famous Moog "wind" (a modulated
white noise, it sounds like a MiniMoog to me) are featured at the start
of Levi Johnston's Blues, alongside piano, electric bass, drums, and percussion.
A dense track with a complex arrangement. There's a fine contrast of the
"desiderata" in the chorus and the reality of the situation as
described in the verses. Fantastic orchestra.
Pomus finds its inspiration in the life and music of the late composer
(hence, the name of the album). A very fine composition, which is perfectly
served by a rich arrangement, a fine mix of epochs and styles. Fine vocal
ensemble work (check the "bullets"), excellent bridge.
by Randy Newman, music by Jethro Tull, circa Thick As A Brick" could
be an adequate description of Your Dogs.
Amanda is a good close to Side One: vocals, piano, and a string quartet.
Two has a Beatles-sounding song (listen to the electric bass) as its start:
Claire's Ninth has a fine chorus and a "minimalist-sounding"
interlude for piano.
is a perfect slow R&B in ¾ with strings, à la Detroit-Philadelphia.
Listen to the snare/bass drum.
Above has Kate Miller-Heidke's vocals coupled to Ben Folds's (here performing
all instruments). It's a fresh, lively song which sounds contagious, a
me, Saskia Hamilton sounds like "a jig with punk inserts", it
sounds quite freaky and bizarre. It sets the perfect contrast to the song
closing track, Belinda, has a fine arrangement. It's a song where the music
has to be listened to in the light of the lyrics, lest one risk missing
the point. Readers are also invited to notice those moments starring strings
and winds, the acoustic guitar, those toms in stereo, the dry electric
bass played plectrum, those synth whistles... Yes, for just one moment
we're back at glorious Trident Studios, Mr. Robin Cable sitting at the
vinyl album stops here. After a brief pause, the CD features a fragment
"possible different version", which to me sounds like "Paul
McCartney doing his best Little Richard imitation".
The album liner notes don't say, but the album - produced by Folds himself
- was recorded in his Nashville studio. In analog, I think: listen to the
first two or three seconds of Levi Johnston's Blues with the volume turned
way up (be careful!), that sounds just like the sound of tape, to me. The
album was recorded and mixed by trusted engineer Joe Costa. Mastering work
by legendary Robert C. Ludwig in his Gateway Mastering &
DVD, Portland, ME.
The sound is fantastic. Those who still listen to music (which is quite different
from pretending to listen to music while one's mind wanders freely) are
invited to listen to the CD at adequate volume.
Then there's the vinyl album. Folds has (rightly) spoken of the LP format as
being the ideal dimension for these stories and music. Alas, things don't
always go as desired, hence a long (and, I think, expensive) process that
ended at legendary Bernie Grundman Mastering Studios, where the album was
cut by Chris Bellman - see those tiny "C" and
"B" that appear in the "deadwax"? (the space between
the label and the end of the music). Pressing 180gr., by US RTI, one of the
best pressing plants left standing. The final judgment is complex: the cutting
is excellent, the sound is rich and precise, the vocals very life-like and
three-dimensional. The pressing is good, but it could definitely have been
better: a few "tics" here and there, the hole that's a bit off-centre,
a light warp, some sibilant highs, especially on Side Two, Track One, made
me scream a few times (please notice: my cartridge is quite unforgiving when
it comes to matters of sibilance).
© Beppe Colli 2010
CloudsandClocks.net | Oct. 28, 2010