Ben Folds/Nick Hornby
Lonely Avenue


" Now what?"

Those 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.

Of 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 song lyrics.

I'll 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.

Which 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 the album.

"Ben 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".

There's 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?

Lotsa 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.

A 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 cymbals.

Picture Window is a piano ballad with an interesting melodic development, well sung by Folds, two double basses being added to the string section.

A 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.

Doc 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.

"Lyrics by Randy Newman, music by Jethro Tull, circa Thick As A Brick" could be an adequate description of Your Dogs.

Practical Amanda is a good close to Side One: vocals, piano, and a string quartet.

Side 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.

Password is a perfect slow R&B in ¾ with strings, la Detroit-Philadelphia. Listen to the snare/bass drum.

From 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 perfect single.

To me, Saskia Hamilton sounds like "a jig with punk inserts", it sounds quite freaky and bizarre. It sets the perfect contrast to the song that follows.

The 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 console.

The vinyl album stops here. After a brief pause, the CD features a fragment of a "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

Beppe Colli 2010 | Oct. 28, 2010