Ben Folds: LIVE IN CONCERT – The Shubert Theater, New Haven, CT (March 28, 2009) – REVIEW

Originally posted 2011-01-17 10:00:42. Republished by Blog Post Promoter

By Jim Fusco:

We now deviate from our regularly scheduled program…

In an unprecedented move, the Laptop Sessions acoustic cover songs music video blog brings you TWO concert reviews in one weekend!  Tonight, I’ll review last night’s Ben Folds concert at the Shubert Theater in New Haven, CT.

There’s so much to say about this concert- really unlike any other Ben Folds experience I’ve had.  For one, he played the entire show (with the exception of a couple of songs in the middle) with a band- something I really haven’t seen before.  Those who know my musical tastes know that having Ben play with a band (rather than just doing the whole show by himself) is definitely preferable.  The songs sounded just like the originals, with the drummer and bassist singing the harmony parts on all the old Ben Folds Five numbers.  There was also another multi-instrumentalist / percussionist and another person I couldn’t see from my vantage point that played keyboards and French horn.

My fiancee and I had a nice night out on the town- the Shubert Theater is in the heart of the city.  And even though the surrounding area is a little…well, not so perfect…the inside of the theater was very nice.  We had GREAT seats, which is funny, because I bought them no more than four days ago online.  We sat in the eighth row on the floor, off to the side a bit.  The tickets were a lean $34.50, plus a TON of taxes and fees that brought them over $45 a piece.

Now, the show Ben Folds put on was great, but getting there wasn’t so much.  He had an opening act- God help me if I could remember the name.  They were okay- kinda quirky and VERY Ben Folds Five-ish.  The problem was that the songs were kind of middle of the road and, more than anything, the songs were WAY too “deep” for an opening act.  I even noted that a couple of the songs had similar lyrics, meaning that the songs came from an album that had a deeper meaning and were meant as part of a bigger picture.  Again, it didn’t really fit well with “opening act”.

They started at about 8:30.  After their set, we waited for about twenty minutes or so, then it was time…

For ANOTHER act to come on first!

This time, it was the “only rock/pop a capella group at Yale” and now I know why.  They were TERRIBLE.  I was embarassed the whole time.  No one there had a good singing voice- the girl they picked to sing the second song of three (who was CLEARLY picked because she was the least “brainiac” looking of them all) couldn’t carry a tune if it was strapped to her back.  They sang two songs no one in the audience never heard of before (complete with two tall Asian guys beat-boxing) and then finished up with a slightly-entertaining version of Ben Folds Five’s “Underground”.  The problem with their version was that no one’s voice was strong enough to really make it sound like the original was sung (the two girls they had singing the chorus were barely audible from the eighth row) and the guy singing lead was annunciating every single word!  It’s not, “And now it has been ten years, I am still won-der-ing who to be.”  You had to be there to get how funny it was, but believe me, it was like a comedy routine.

That was followed by an announcement saying that Ben was coming out with a new album (!!!)…only to get let down by the fact that it’s an album of performances by a capella college groups! Ugh, talk about an album I’ll miss.  I’m almost absolutely certain that this will end up on Chris’ TV stand in the near future, though.

After that act was done…we waited.  And waited.  And waited some more.

Finally, about 9:30 or so, Ben came out on the stage with his band.  The band didn’t really seem into the music all that much, but it’s probably because they were trying to act cool.  Ben was his usual lively self- kicking the piano bench away and singing better than I’ve ever heard him.

He played an interesting set anchored by tracks off his past two albums, “Way to Normal” and “Songs for Silverman”.  He played songs like “Effington”, “Dr. Yang”, and “Free Coffee”, which are NOT some of my favorites.  Although, I do have more respect for “Free Coffee” now because that terrible sound on the piano is actually made by putting empty Altoids boxes on the strings and adding a distortion pedal.  These songs sounded exactly like the recordings.

He also played some better ones from “Way To Normal”, including “Hiroshima” and “Brainwascht”.

His “Songs for Silverman” list included “Bastard”, “Jesusland”, “Sentimental Guy”, and “Landed”.

One thing I noticed about this show was the pre-determined setlist.  He really had it down, like a regular concert.  There was no wasting time after he got on- each song ended, then the next one began about five seconds later, with no introduction.  I mean, he talked enough, though- made a few jokes, had the audience sining (hilariously, at points) on my favorite song, “Not the Same” and “Army”, and seemed very happy.

He looked good, too- not all crazy-haired and everything.  He looked happy and healthy, which is good to see.  His show was an hour and a half, but the encore was only one song (a great one in “Fair”, especially with the band) because he said they ran out of time.  I think the delay from starting the concert may have been from him “dueling pianos” with someone at Toad’s Place in New Haven, which he mentioned a couple times during the show.  I think he came back to the Shubert late!  He had to get a Band-Aid for his finger after playing the piano so hard at Toad’s.  Both Ben and the opening act commented on how great the sound at the Shubert was- said it was the best sound on the tour.  That theater is built for having great acoustics, so I can see why.

It was a great show and everyone left happy.  There were a lot of younger teens there, too, which is nice to see.  Everyone seemed to love the songs off of “Rockin’ the Suburbs” the most, seeing that it was a popular album.  In classic Dylan fashion, he didn’t play his most (and only) famous song, “Brick” or another crowd favorite, “One Angry Dwarf”.  He played a crazy alternate version of “The Bitch Went Nuts”- I never heard it before and the only similarity between the one he released on “Way To Normal” was the title line.  I kinda liked the song he played last night better.

I’ll definitely go see him again next go-around, and I hope he comes out with another album to add even more variety to the setlist.

The BEST COMPILATIONS of 2011 (The Year-End Awards)

Originally posted 2012-01-21 10:00:16. Republished by Blog Post Promoter

By Chris Moore:

Every year, there are a wide variety of compilations, best of’s, essentials, greatest hits, and retrospectives that are released.  I usually only buy one here or there.  This year, there were three outstanding compilations, which are recognized below.  In each case, the packaging is excellent, notable if only for the excellent attention to liner notes that provide further context and insight into the tracks.  Even though all three were of high quality, Ben Folds’ reasonably-priced, beautifully packaged, well-selected Best Imitation of Myself takes the prize without debate.

1) The Best Imitation of Myself: A Retrospective – Ben Folds

2) Twenty – Pearl Jam

3) Outside Society – Patti Smith

Ben Folds & Nick Hornby’s “Lonely Avenue” (2010) – The Weekend Review

Originally posted 2010-10-11 11:42:36. Republished by Blog Post Promoter

By Chris Moore:

RATING:  4 / 5 stars

It’s natural to shake your head when an artist of the caliber of Ben Folds undertakes a collaboration.  Even if you like the collaborator, the results are typically underwhelming, a document of unique talent and energy being diluted, and perhaps even forced; as a result, the collaboration is more likely to collect dust than play counts.

I’ll admit that I shook my head when I read that Folds would be working with an author, as if his lyrics  haven’t always been strong, dating back as far as Ben Folds Five.  As if he needed a creative infusion.

Then I read that the author in question was Nick Hornby.  That would be Nick Hornby of High Fidelity fame (yes, there is a book that inspired the John Cusack film).  If ever there was an author who might be able to lend an intelligent and unfiltered edge to rock music, it is Hornby.

(To clarify, he is not to be confused with adult contemporary pianist Bruce Hornsby, an alliance that would serve little purpose short of adding profanity to “The Way It Is” or perhaps some angry piano to “Mandolin Rain.”)

The title Lonely Avenue is itself an homage of sorts to another writer: Jerome Solon Felder, better known as Doc Pomus.  I imagine that many listeners will wonder, as I did, whether the title character of the fourth track is a creation of Hornby’s imagination.  (Wikipedia has, once again, provided what I lacked in cultural literacy regarding twentieth century songwriters.)  This is a fitting title for the album, particularly considering that the thread tying each song together, with one notable exception, is that of confronting and/or pontificating on the inherent loneliness of the modern human condition.

In many ways, Folds’ music has always adopted the Pomusian attitude described by Hornby as, “He found a way to make his feelings/isolation pay.”  Think for a moment about such tracks as “The Last Polka,” “Evaporated,” “Regrets,” “Still Fighting It,” “Trusted,” and “You Don’t Know Me” — just one track apiece from his previous six albums — each an exercise in repaying pain with a musical and lyrical roast aimed at catharsis.

In many ways, this is Folds’ great musical legacy, and perhaps a clue as to how he has remained so popular with college audiences.

Lonely Avenue is thus populated by lost or otherwise isolated souls: a victim of cruel online blogging, a chronically ill inpatient, a social outcast, a nine year old dealing with her parents’ divorce, a man being cheated on, a poetry nerd, and a music star doomed to a Promethean cycle of torment as he is asked nightly to play a hit song he wrote for a woman from whom he has long since separated.

Lonely Avenue (Ben Folds & Nick Hornby, 2010)

Considering this cast of characters, “From Above” functions as a thesis of sorts, asserting in the chorus that, “It’s so easy from above / You can really see it all / People who belong together / Lost and sad and small / But there’s nothing to be done for them / It doesn’t work that way / Sure, we all have soul mates / But we walk past them every day.”  Antithetical to the romantic comedy genre, Folds and Hornby advance the theory that we may never find our “soul mates,” and short of acquiring some sort of metaphorical aerial view of our lives, we may never realize that we could be happier.

Hornby nicely adopts the genre’s device of juxtaposition, placing Tom and Martha, the prototypical disconnected soul mates, not only together in the same song but also together in the same place on numerous occasions throughout their lives.  They are never “actually unhappy,” but there is a sense of “a phantom limb, an itch that could never be scratched.”  This serves, at least, as some explanation for the human condition; as Folds sings, “And who knows whether that’s how it should be?  Maybe our ghosts live right in that vacancy.”

This also functions as a myth of artistic creation, Hornby positing that “Maybe that’s how books get written / Maybe that’s why songs get sung / Maybe we owe the unlucky ones.”  To be certain, we owe the synthesis of Lonely Avenue to the unlucky ones, such as those listed above.

What works best on this album is the ebb and flow of tracks, the pensive ballads interspersed between piano rock.  Indeed, Lonely Avenue is the most dynamic Folds release since 2001’s Rockin’ the Suburbs, although the individual tracks probably aren’t as strong as those on Songs for Silverman (2005).  It’s also arguable that there is not as much of that x factor “soul” as there was on his post-breakup offering Way to Normal (2008).

And yet, Lonely Avenue clearly emerges as the inheritor to the Rockin’ throne, an album comprised of diverse stories and sounds bound together in a cohesive manner.

Where the album suffers is as a result of not knowing when enough is enough.  The orchestration seems overdone at times, and some tracks dissolve Folds’ typical predilection for tight numbers.  “Picture Window,” for all its heartrending poignancy, pushes this latter line and “Password” probably crosses it, albeit with a killer payoff in the post-“ding!” twist, but it is most notably in “Levi Johnston’s Blues” when Folds stretches the song out for a minute and a half beyond the logical stopping point.  The song — whose deceptively crude chorus was actually lifted from Johnston’s Facebook page and brilliantly set to music — borders on anthemic, and I would be willing to concede on the song’s length up to a point (as I enjoy singing along to it more than I should admit here).  To be certain, though, the final thirty seconds are inexcusable; the chorus is funny and fun, but enough is enough.

“Levi Johnston’s Blues” is also the aforementioned notable exception, its premise being more about holding up a figure for ridicule than thoughtfully exploring the isolation of an individual.

Lyrically, the album is every bit as strong as one could hope, and musically, Ben Folds is as interesting and impressive as ever (yet another reason to be disinclined to approving of too much orchestration).  There are several absolute gems, although “Claire’s Ninth” jumps to the forefront as the perfect specimen of a beautiful song that is beautifully performed and produced.  As far as album closers go, “Belinda” is among the best in Folds’ catalog, sounding (as they intended) like “an old hit song” and putting such recent derivative attempts as “Kylie from Connecticut” to shame.  Even “Your Dogs,” rough around the edges though it may be, could be held up against any Ben Folds Five-era caustic rocker, just as the tender depths of “Practical Amanda” have not been hinted at since Silverman and have not been reached since Rockin’ deep tracks like “Losing Lisa” and “Carrying Cathy.”

I will not argue that Lonely Avenue is a perfect album; it certainly has its shortcomings, all the more noticeable to fans of Ben Folds’ music.  However, there is a danger in always comparing new music to the previous artistic heights of the artist.  As such, I cannot in good conscience limit this release to three stars out of my love for past albums; rather, I submit this as a bona fide four star album: an insightful exploration of isolation that is not only solid but also imbued with unique energy by an unmitigated talent.

Ben Folds’ “Rockin’ The Suburbs” (2001) – The Weekend Review

Originally posted 2009-12-20 20:00:33. Republished by Blog Post Promoter

** This is the third in a five part series of music reviews, counting down from the #5 to the #1 albums of the decade, 2000-2009. On January 2nd, 2010, the #1 album will be revealed, along with the complete Weekend Review picks for the Top Thirty Albums of the Decade. **

By Chris Moore:

RATING: 5/5 stars

Ben Folds’ 2001 solo debut Rockin’ The Suburbs is one of those rare albums that thoughtfully balances all-seeing self-confidence and heartbreaking vulnerability.

It is also one of those albums that has gone largely unappreciated.

At the time of its release — September 11, 2001 to be exact — the album received moderate reviews and modest numbers on the album and singles charts.  Folds’ subsequent records have also been dismissed by many sources, holding steady around the three star mark from major reviewers like Rolling Stone.  Still, his more recent work has scored higher on the charts, with Songs For Silverman earning the “mature record” stamp and Way to Normal garnering an inordinate amount of attention from the media, as well as the distinction as Folds’ highest debut on the Billboard charts.

Say what you will about his other work — and Songs for Silverman is a truly great album — but he has never matched the sound, feel, and overall conceptual focus that was present throughout Rockin’ the Suburbs.  Listen after listen, the latter reveals itself to be an exploration of that most basic of all human conditions: loneliness.

Whether intentionally or not, Folds is making statements, track by track, about what it means to confront the truth that, in the end, we’re all alone.  His contemporary landscaping lends itself to this task quite well, as he sets his songs in cubicle-dominated office buildings, behind the doors of extravagant corporate offices, at funerals, and in any number of mundane suburban settings frequented by aimless and/or lost young people.

This was an album I could relate to as a young college student, beginning to think about the world around me and the career — the life — ahead of me.

Likewise, nearly a decade later, this is an album that not only has meaning for me as an adult, but that I also expect will speak to me in decades to come when I find myself, as Michael Stipe would say, staring down the barrel of the middle distance.

Ben Folds' "Rockin' the Suburbs" (2001)

Ben Folds' "Rockin' the Suburbs" (2001)

“Annie Waits” is the ideal opening track, establishing mood with the tale of solitary Annie, waiting on a call that never comes, expectantly watching the cars driving past and wishing she was alone.  Alone, there would be no expectation, there would be no disappointment.  There would be no vulnerability.

The second track moves quickly into the territory of the disenfranchised, featuring two young people, uniquely spelled names and all, screaming out loud to a world that’s not listening.  Zak is the more introverted of the two, choosing to plunk away at guitars, while Sara is rattled by the dreary banality, choosing instead to verbally lash out against a car salesman.  Even Sara has to snap out of it in the end, clapping at the end of her song.

“Still Fighting It” is certainly one of the most personal songs on the album, written as a direct statement to his son.  While expressing the pure joy of fatherhood, Folds also notes that “everybody knows it hurts to grow up,” recalling that “it was pain, sunny days and rain; I knew you’d feel the same things…”

The next four tracks can be viewed as various takes on separation and loneliness.  It begins with “Gone,” a rant against an ex-lover who moved on too quickly, and concludes with “Losing Lisa,” the lament of a lover uncertain of what he’s done to merit a break-up.

The interceding tracks introduce the two sides of a coin all too often stamped out by a contemporary, corporate world that values profit over personality, hubris over humanity.  “Fred Jones Part 2″ describes the final day of a man who has spent twenty-five years working for a newspaper at which he has remained utterly anonymous.  “No one is left here that knows his first name,” Folds sings.  He continues, “Life barrels on like a runaway train where the passengers change; they don’t change anything.  You get off, someone else can get on.”  And so Mr. Jones goes quietly into that good night, ostensibly to conclude a life lived without meaning or true substance.

In other words, a life that many modern-day office workers are in danger of living.

“The Ascent of Stan” an equal and opposite life journey.  Stan is described as having been a “textbook hippy man, and yet somewhere along his path he chose to play the game that would earn him the prestige, the paychecks, and all the financial security that accompanies them; this leaves him, of course, morally bankrupt.

“Carrying Cathy” and “Not the Same” follow the stories of two people who have become lost.  Cathy ends up committing suicide, leaving the narrator with nightmares and regrets.  The subject of “Not the Same” takes LSD, climbs a tree, and returns to the ground as a born-again Christian.  In a sense, the latter song centers around the narrator’s disbelief that he has seen so many people change, “drop like flies from the bright, sunny skies,” and he is left alone with “one good trick.”

For all the bleak subject matter that dominates much of the disc, it is easy to dismiss the levity that the title track offers as contrary to the overall tone of the album.  And yet “Rockin’ the Suburbs” is Folds’ signal to his audience that he has put all things in perspective.  If nowhere else on the album, it is on the title track that he lets all the walls fall down to reveal his sense of humor and unique perspective in as uncensored a manner as possible.

Go ahead and watch the music video.  Try not to laugh, I dare you.

“Fired” continues in the same vein as previous tracks like “Losing Lisa,” describing the painful revelations of the narrator.

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, “The Luckiest” completes the album on a fittingly somber-sounding note, providing a hopeful story as the singer confesses his love — albeit in a unique manner — through a description of his perspectives on l0ve, life, fate, and choice.  And isn’t this ability to start all over again, heartbreak notwithstanding, the key factor in being able to break free of the loneliness that threatens to haunt all human souls?

It would only take one listen to Way To Normal to reveal that the starting over may also lead to future heartbreak, but that is indeed the story for another review…

When Robert Christgau labeled this album a “dud,” tossing it into the general category of “a bad record whose details rarely merit further thought,” he clearly missed not one but many outstanding attributes of Folds’ debut.  He missed a provocative exploration of the modern human psyche, that lonely, longing, and bruised side that many of us attempt to push aside for the ease of survival.  He missed a fascinating lineup of characters populating the album from front to back — characters like Annie, Zak, Sara, Fred Jones, Stan, Lisa, Cathy, and Lucretia — who are representative of the negative toll society can take on individuals.

And he certainly missed the finely layered vocals, bass, and drums that are always supporting, yet never surpassing, Ben Folds’ considerable talents on piano.

This is an album that I hope you won’t miss.  It shaped the way I see my world, and continues to merit further thought every time I listen to it, all the while being a great deal of fun to listen to.

As I’ve inquired in the past, what more could you ask for in a rock album?