Monday, January 2, 2012

Ben Folds 9: Way To Normal

Ben Folds’ detractors have easy targets for their criticism. He’s either too snarky or wimpy for their tastes; yet at the same time, anyone who hoped he’d do more “funny songs” as he did on the first album by the Five would have a field day with Way To Normal. And those detractors would have plenty of reasons to say “I told you so.”
The opening track, “Hiroshima (B B B Benny Hit His Head)” gets its genesis from an actual falling-down-onstage incident, and outside of the obvious Elton John reference in the title and arrangement, it’s also musically close to “Landed”, which is a better song, and less of a made-up novelty like this. Maybe “Dr. Yang” was the guy who tended to him after the fact, but it’s hard to follow without lyrics. “The Frown Song” makes two wacky sounding songs in a row (because someone bought a Moog) and we’re still waiting for the album to start. The first single, “You Don’t Know Me”, is something of a duet with sensitive breathy female artist du jour Regina Spektor, with an annoying video to match. The “Before Cologne” interlude, however, is just lovely, and we wish there was both more of it, and more like it. “Cologne” itself is sad and pretty.
“Errant Dog” pretty much deflates the somber mood, though it does sounds like a Ben Folds Five outtake. “Free Coffee” is based around the sound of Altoids on piano strings, and that’s the most interesting thing to say about it. There’s an annoying spoken “prelude” to the next track, which only conjures images of The Love Guru. Luckily it’s indexed before the song proper, which explains how the “Bitch Went Nuts”. The high-school vocabulary notwithstanding, the choruses are great. Similarly, “Brainwascht” is a little better than the other “wacky” songs thus far. “Effington” would inspire an album full of college a cappella songs, stemming from the “Please Please Me” cop at the start. The final word comes in “Kylie From Connecticut”, a vague portrait of a failed marriage and a pretty depressing way to go out.
Maybe this was a defiant riposte to the news that he was on his third divorce and fourth wife, but that only put the Songs For Silverman in sharper hindsight. As it is, he takes much too long between albums than fans would prefer, and with Way To Normal he should have worked a little longer on the quality. Most of the songs seem jokey for the sake of being vulgar, and while we like cheap laffs as much as anyone, these don’t work. Coming on the heels of Supersunnyspeedgraphic, The LP, it was even more of a disappointment. What made matters worse is that he purposely leaked “fake” versions of some of the songs before the album’s proper release, most of which were better than the real thing. (Of course, that only torpedoes the argument that he needs time to ensure better output.)
Perhaps to boost interest in the album—or even an acknowledgement that it wasn’t that good—the following year Ben put out an expanded version under the title Stems And Seeds. One disc featured downloadable files of the Way To Normal songs for people to remix in such programs as GarageBand, while the other included an already rejigged version of the album, plus the leaked fakes. If you don’t mind buying the album twice, that’s the way to go, if only because it’s easier than trying to dig up the tracks online.

Ben Folds Way To Normal (2008)—2
Ben Folds Stems And Seeds (2009)—3

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