Saturday, November 08, 2008

Ben Folds, Normal Guy

I’ve always wavered on the quality of Ben Folds’ music, both with his original Ben Folds Five trio and as a solo artist. On the plus side, his piano-based indie rock has always had a distinctive sound that sets it apart from most semi-mainstream left-of-the-dial pop from the past decade. He has a gift for melody, and, when not drowning in smarminess, the lyrics have an entertaining bite. On the minus side, there is a bitterness (and, let’s admit it, some misogyny) that can be distracting. And for all his songwriting gifts, he’s never really recorded an album that’s truly consistent from start to finish (though his solo debut, Rockin’ The Suburbs, came close, and the Ben Fold Five's Whatever & Ever Amen has a better-than-average ratio of hits to misses).

His latest, Way To Normal, is no great departure from this track record. A few jaunty pop songs, a few ballads that haven't quite grown on me, a few eccentric songs whose novely wears off halfway through first listen. If Rockin' The Suburbs was his joyous return to the fun, upbeat sound of the first few Ben Folds Five albums, and solo follow-up Songs For Silverman was a more ballad-heavy, lushly adult album along the lines of the Five's swan-song Unauthorized Biography of Reinhold Messner, Normal seems like an attempt to straddle both sides of his stylistic range. Album opener "Hiroshima" (something of a rip-off of Elton John's "Benny & The Jets") starts off with a merry romp, and stays in the same mood for "Dr. Yang." After that, though, it's kinda all over the place. I liked the duet with alt-folkie Regina Spektor, and was reluctantly taken in by the unfortunately-named "Bitch Went Nuts," a catchy pop track dragged down by yet another excursion into Folds' well-worn hate-the-ex rantings. Otherwise, not so much. And the album doesn't really have a killer stand-out track approaching the sweeping beauty of Silverman's Brill-building-inspired "Landed."

All told, there were probably as many (or more) solid tunes on his recent soundtrack from Over The Hedge. Seriously, I'd pick that up first. Stuck within the confines of a children's animated film, Folds had to resort to clever lyrics that are bitch-free; plus, hey, a nifty middle-of-the-road cover of the Clash's "Lost In The Supermarket," can't go wrong with that.

Fortunately, the general unevenness of Folds' albums, plus a steady flow of worthwhile tunes on various ep's, b-sides and soundtracks, makes him ideal for mixing. Picking up Way To Normal and Over The Hedge gave me an opportunity to expand my old single-cd mix into a double-cd deluxe edition, and it looks something like this:


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