Saturday, November 8, 2008

Ben Folds -- Way To Normal (2008)

Ben Folds -- Way To Normal (Epic)

When Ben Folds broke on the scene, he was a piano popster with a bit of an attitude. Not edge, but attitude. He was truly sophomoric as his energetic songs seemed to capture the world of a 20-year old guy and the rationalizations and foolishness that go along with it.

Folds quickly added dimension to his persona, with the hit single “Brick” showing off a mature lyricist and a tunesmith capable of achingly good work. And that second dimension has been his only addition. He’s either a smart ass or a sensitive guy.

And the smart ass thing is losing a lot of its appeal. This new Folds album is frustrating, as his clever arrangements and melodic ingenuity are still winning. But his writing has become increasingly insular, as if he has lost some of his purpose. There has always been a tension between the smart ass and the sensitive, and as the smart ass gets more annoying, the sensitive seems to sound a lot more insincere.

I just don't know what to make of a song like "Errant Dog", where Ben gripes over a rollicking piano part about a canine pain-in-the-ass. But it seems like Folds is intent on seeing what he can rhyme with the word "bitch" or coming up with lines like "sometimes I wonder why I put up with his shit/if I could, I would become a lesbian." Yeah, Ben, whatever.

Album opener "Hiroshima (B B B Benny Hit His Head)" is another strained exercise in cleverness. The song is about Ben falling down on stage, apparently into an orchestra pit, in Hiroshima. This tale is told pretty straightforwardly, and, as it stands, it's not very compelling. So Folds spices things up, as indicated in the title, by setting his mundane words to an homage to Elton John's "Benny and the Jets". Okay, that's not bad source material, I suppose. But the whole thing never coalesces.

I do enjoy a couple of Folds's snarkfests, though I'm digging one of them grudgingly. A spoken word set up somehow makes "Bitch Went Nuts" tolerable, despite Folds potty mouthed for the sake of being potty mouthed lyrics (look, I'm no prude, but Folds' willing use of so many FCC unfriendly words robs them of any power). In the intro, the Asian accented narrator (who's a bit less offensive than Mickey Rooney in Breakfast At Tiffany's) explains that when a women breaks up with a guy, she'll attribute it to specific problems with the guy. But whenever a guy break up with a gal, she went nuts. This is true more often than most guys might want to admit. So I laugh in spite of myself.

Then there's "Free Coffee", in which Folds makes the observation that being rich and famous affords one more privileges than when one is not, even though, because one is rich and famous, the perks are unnecessary. This unremarkable observation is made in an unremarkable fashion.

But the music is sublime. Folds plays pretty piano figures on top of a ridiculously inventive percussion track that mixes drums, electronics, sound effects and who knows what else. Man, it sounds great on headphones. This is simply cool.

Folds saves his softer side for the end of the album. But neither "Effington" or "Kylie From Connecticut" fully connect, even though both are infused with solid Folds melodies. "Effington" is lush wide screen pop, as Folds moons over the joys of a small town life that he is not living. The song seems to attempt to cross breed a little Burt Bacharach sophistication with Billy Joel drama. This song sort of works for me, again, because of the terrific music. But I'm baffled why Folds decides to sing about the Illinois town of Effington, Illinois, when there's a real Effingham, Illinois, and, more importantly, why he felt the need to devote the first verse to singing about people "effing" in their cars, yards and trailers. Well, maybe not baffled, but the immaturity is a drag.

"Kylie" comes off a bit better. It's about a housewife who clings to love from 35 years past. The narrative lays out some details and otherwise leaves a whole lot of blanks that I wish he had filled in. So much drama is built up and I don't think the words full resolve it. The song has a nifty instrumental break, where a heavy Folds piano weaves in with a great string arrangement.

This really typifies the frustration I have with this album. Folds would benefit from a producer who could pull out the best of what he can do. He is capable of true insight and fabulous music. Yet it only comes through intermittently. There are tracks here that simply work well, like "You Don't Know Me", which has a cameo from Regina Spektor, and the boppin' "The Frown Song". But there simply aren't enough of them. And that just shouldn't be the case.


Unknown said...

I've despised Ben Folds' music from the beginning, despite his obvious smarts and talent, for all the reasons you express very succinctly in this review. Now that he lives here in Nashville, I keep worrying he'll be behind me in Grimey's while I'm dissing him... but I'm not that worried, I think I can take him.

Did you ever check out Fluid Ounces? Seth Timbs is a contemporary of Folds, rather than an imitator, but he does everything Folds can do better and with real heart, yet his career will always be short-circuited by people hearing him and saying "oh, he's ripping off Ben Folds." Sigh.

Mike Bennett said...

I have a couple of Fluid Ounces discs, and lost track of them. Just thinking about them, the melody of "Vegetable Kingdom" has popped into my head. I guess I need to catch up.