Monday, March 19, 2012

Ben Folds 10: Lonely Avenue

Outside of the usual promotion for his previous, disappointing album, Ben seemed more interested in new projects. His interest in college a cappella groups led to his stint as a judge on a televised talent show series, and the stopgap in the form of University A Cappella!, wherein songs from his catalog were interpreted by fourteen college groups. (He added two performances of his own.)
A more adventurous departure came with his full collaboration with British author Nick Hornby, whose books Juliet, Naked and High Fidelity (the latter even better than the John Cusack film based on it) are must-reads for any record-collecting obsessive. For Lonely Avenue, Nick wrote the words and Ben wrote the music, communicating via e-mail. The results were then recorded by Ben with help from his band. Paul Buckmaster contributes several string arrangements, paving a further path from Elton John.
The best songs tend to be the pretty ones, or at least where he’s not trying to be too clever. “A Working Day” is a brief one-man-band that sounds too much like Way To Normal, but at least it’s over quickly. Then it’s a visit to a terminal spouse at a hospital—not an uncommon destination for a Ben Folds album. “Levi Johnston’s Blues” was dated even before it was recorded, and seems to exist solely to give Ben another excuse to exercise his patented potty mouth. The thing is, the chorus is kinda catchy. Equally catchy, despite itself is the tribute to “Doc Pomus”, wherein our unlikely duo pinpoints their ideal comparison of the type of songwriting team to which they aspire. “Your Dogs” uses the animal in another Folds song title, in another glimpse at the travails of modern suburbia, while “Practical Amanda” turns out to be a thank-you note for the yin a spouse provides the narrator’s yang.
The rest of the album is strong for the duration. The most developed story (and arrangement) might be “Claire’s Ninth”; much like the character studies from Rockin’ The Suburbs, it’s an excellent glimpse inside the effects of divorce and estrangement—subjects these guys know and cover well. “Password” puts the age-old conundrum of jealousy and perceived infidelity squarely in the present, with a distinctly ‘70s slow jam arrangement to nudge the plot along. “From Above” was a good choice for a lead single, a tense yet infectious reflection on relationships that never happened. The momentum carries through the crush a “teenage poetry nerd” has for “Saskia Hamilton”, before the grand finale of “Belinda”. This brilliant song looks at any singer-songwriter who had a huge hit with a song written for someone he hasn’t been with in years, but still has to sing the song onstage (think Billy Joel, Eric Clapton, or Ben anytime someone requests “The Luckiest”). The music for the imaginary song is perfect, and we struggle to feel sorry for the guy—just like a character from a Nick Hornby novel. Just make sure to stop the disc before it actually ends, as there’s a minute of silence before a surprise snippet from an outtake version obliterates the arrangement.
Lonely Avenue see-saws between being good and very good. Ultimately it’s not fair to criticize the subject matter, since again, Ben only supplied the music. It’s still a step in the right direction, and suggests that at the very least, his musical ear will always triumph over his lyrical shortcomings.

Ben Folds/Nick Hornby Lonely Avenue (2010)—

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