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.

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?

The Weekend Review: September 2012 Report

Originally posted 2013-01-27 11:46:11. Republished by Blog Post Promoter

By Chris Moore:

North (Matchbox Twenty)

Producer: Matt Serletic

Released: September 4, 2012

Rating:  3 / 5 stars

Top Two Tracks: “Parade” & “She’s So Mean”

When a band rises to the heights that Matchbox Twenty did, putting out one quality album after another across six years, then takes a ten year break from recording albums, it should go without saying that the expectations are high for a return effort.  To be fair, the band did punch out an EP as an incentive to push sales of their greatest hits album in 2007, but aside from that, there has been no true album-level effort from them since 2002’s chart-topping More Than You Think You Are.  And even the EP, offering the first full-band collaborations on songwriting credits, suggested the new and dynamic paths of which they were capable.  So, again, expectations for a new album would have to be high.  Then North arrived in 2012.  The cover (with its minimalist, plain white design) and packaging (a digipack lacking artistic direction and a booklet offering nearly all text: legal credits and thank you’s) are indicative of a sense of autopilot being engaged throughout the record, particularly after the dynamite opening trio of songs.  “Parade” is a gorgeous opener and probably the best track on the album, though it would probably have been a mid-album deep track on their previous efforts.  Then, “She’s So Mean,” the single, powers out of the gate, and it is a fun track, if a bit more two dimensional than one has come to expect from a Matchbox Twenty song.  “Overjoyed” follows up with a slow, acoustic opening and a build to a lush, catchy refrain.  The next two tracks are solid, though again nothing that would have made it higher than midway on previous releases.  The remainder of the album (with the sole exceptions of “This Way” and perhaps “How Long”) fails to capture the spirit of anything more than a predictable series of songs.  There are attempts at dynamism, but they largely fall flat, as though the songwriting ended one minute into the composition and the “repeat” button was stamped down.  If mine is too harsh a criticism, then so be it, but if the band wasn’t ready to top or at least meet their previous records, each of which offered something new while clearly being in line with previous efforts, then perhaps they should have waited several more years to return. 




Tempest (Bob Dylan)

Producer: Bob Dylan

Released: September 10, 2012

Rating:  5 / 5 stars

Top Two Tracks: “Pay in Blood” & “Long and Wasted Years”

I’d have a hard time giving any album of newly written and recorded Bob Dylan music less than a positive review.  That being said, as my review of 2009’s Together Through Life exemplifies, I will not hesitate to assign his work a critical score.  (For the written record, looking back now, I would give the album at least 4 if not 4.5 stars, but I’ve had three years to listen repeatedly and pick up on all the wonderful nuances that are available on most Dylan records.)  My point in bringing this up is to reinforce the fact that, for me, a 5 star review is no trivial matter.  Tempest, Bob Dylan’s latest, is truly an achievement.  If Time Out of Mind (1997), Love and Theft (2001), and Modern Times (2005) have been referred to by critics as a trilogy of sorts, then Tempest feels like the second installment in what we can only hope will be another trilogy.  As in most great three-part series, the second is often the best for so many reasons.  In this case, speculation and externally imposed organizational systems aside, Tempest has all the makings of a great album.  In some ways, the sound is clearly an extension of Together’s, particularly with the inclusion of the accordion.  However, there is something darker, deeper about Tempest, and there is more looming here than on the previous record.  The sequencing, particularly in the upper half of the order, is brilliant: opening with an instrumental at partial volume for “Duquesne Whistle” that begs to be played on a record player, yet quickly livening the pace as the true song unfolds; following with the brief (especially for Dylan, but also by normal standards) but beautiful, touching “Soon After Midnight;” rolling into the riff-driven “Narrow Way” that conjures the spirit of “Rollin’ and Tumblin’” without sounding like a retread; transitioning to “Long and Wasted Years,” which presents an aura of (good) eighties Dylan and some of the best lyrics he has presented in years (which is saying something!); and amping it up with “Pay in Blood,” surely the best rocker since 2001’s “Honest With Me,” though why George Receli wasn’t directed to be more heavy hitting on the drums, I’ll never understand (thanks to Mike Fusco, songwriter and drummer extraordinaire for pointing this out to me).  The second half of the album is dedicated to longer and, in a few cases, story-driven tracks.  “Scarlet Town” drips with details and fully comes to life in a haunting manner.  “Early Roman Kings” is perhaps the sonic standout here, running along an accordion-driven riff with lyrical content that could only be properly conveyed via Dylan’s ragged vocals with his uniquely devastating yet wry delivery.  A winding tale of murder and darkly shadowed honor is the topic for “Tin Angel,” and as it spans over nine minutes at a ponderous pace, it is almost as though Dylan is daring his listener to follow each detail without fail – a difficult task for anyone with a modern day attention span – which only further strengthens the theme of the track.  The penultimate track, the title track, is the one song here that I have skipped regularly after repeated lessons.  It fits superbly here, thematically at least, as it chronicles the historical epitome of hubris and imminent tragedy across nearly fourteen minutes: epic length for an epic topic.  Perhaps it is my generation’s experience with the film version of Titanic that weakens my interest here, but Dylan incorporates even that retelling of the tale in a way only he ever could.  As a final track, Dylan does something he has not often done (“Song to Woody” and “Lenny Bruce” comes to mind, but not many others): presents a direct tribute naming the honoree without obfuscation or metaphorical distortion.  “Roll On, John” offers an interesting new take on a form that Ringo Starr has experimented with (typically to perfection) yet this comes from an outside perspective that is also somehow an insider’s point of view.  All in all, Tempest has it all: artful lyrics that beg interpretation and admiration delivered by a singular voice in modern music, as Dylan’s has always been, presented on a foundation of strong, intricate, and subtle instrumentation that runs, walks, and breathes in all the right places, belying a band the core of which has been together, more or less, for well over a decade.  The tracks work together as parts of a greater whole, and when “Roll On, John” fades out, it should be the rare listener who is not drawn back in by the jazzy lap steel, piano, and acoustic guitar that herald the return of “Duquesne Whistle.” 



The Sound of the Life of the Mind (Ben Folds Five)

Producer: Joe Pisapia

Released: September 18, 2012

Rating:  5 / 5 stars

Top Two Tracks: “The Sound of the Life of the Mind” & “Michael Praytor, Five Years Later”

Ben Folds Five were always a dynamic group, from the very first bars of “Jackson Cannery” on their self-titled 1995 debut.  Whatever and Ever Amen (1997) is probably one of the best albums of all time, and 1999’s The Unauthorized Biography of Reinhold Messner deserves to be one of the best-remembered concept albums of the past few decades.  This all being established, The Sound of the Life of the Mind is something different than they have ever produced.  In terms of great albums, it is the truly complete package, presenting as it does the perfect blends and ranges: between anger, sadness, nostalgia, and self-empowerment; between personal, introspective songs and biting social commentary tracks; and between high octane rockers and tear-your-heart-out ballads, though strongly inclined toward the former.  The album clearly bears the mark of band members who mastered their craft and perfected their chemistry yet haven’t had the opportunity to exercise that expertise in well over a decade (with the exception of their Unauthorized Bio live concert on the internet several years back).  On The Sound of the Life of the Mind, Darren Jessee’s drumming is lively, energizing, and inventive, Robert Sledge’s bass is delivered at such breakneck rates that the intricacy he accomplishes shouldn’t be possible, and Ben Fold’s piano elements are brilliant as ever and then some (for someone who doesn’t play beyond chords on the keyboard, I lack the words to properly convey what it is that makes Folds’ method on the piano quite so captivating and clearly skillful, but that does not diminish my ability to at least detect it).  More to the point, this album deserves a five star rating for the fact that a breakdown of the standout tracks would include just about every song on the record.  “Erase Me” sets the tone for sequence to come, firing through a series of imperatives that, like much of Ben Folds’ best work, borders on the autobiographical.  “Michael Praytor, Five Years Later” introduces a new individual into the vast community of Ben Folds Five characters, aligning Michael’s persona with the very relatable topic of people who come into and out of one’s life over the years.  As Folds sings, “Who knows why some satellites come by and by while others disappear into the sky?”  Michael Praytor is the quintessential satellite personality.  The next track follows the question into the sky, presenting the only BF5 song – Jessee’s “Sky High” – other than his 1999 song “Magic” to be written exclusively by someone other than Folds.   The title track again introduces a new individual into the BF5 cast of characters, another named Sara (intentionally or otherwise conjuring 2001’s solo Folds track “Zak and Sara”).  I could check the spelling, of course, assuming that a lyric booklet were included with the CD packaging; unfortunately, the otherwise gorgeous and well-executed artistic vision for the package does not include the words, a serious deficiency for an album that features such interesting, well-written lyrics.  A leftover from the Nick Hornby/Ben Folds writing sessions for Lonely Avenue (2010) follows in “On Being Frank” (Sinatra), a solid track that fits in seamlessly here and highlights the possibilities for orchestration that weren’t explored before Unauthorized Bio.  The next two tracks – the supremely catchy and wittily biting “Draw A Crowd” and the uplifting, quasi-Emersonian “Do It Anyway” – accomplish the unusual: they bring album opening power and quality to the second half of the record.  The sequence continues with the strong “Hold That Thought” before winding down to the emotionally hard-hitting “Away When You Were Here” and “Thank You for Breaking My Heart.”  From start to finish, The Sound of the Life of the Mind is a serious accomplishment and is just the sort of magnificent reunion release one would expect from a band of Ben Folds Five’s caliber after over ten years on hiatus.  Any time they are capable of this sort of artistic vision and production, they need to put it all together: if that takes another ten plus years, it will be well worth the wait. 




Moms (Menomena)

Released: September 18, 2012

Rating:  4.5 / 5 stars

Top Two Tracks: “Plumage” & “Pique”

After 2010’s Mines, going back to the studio to prepare a follow-up must have been an intimidating task.  And yet, Menomena has returned a brief two years later with another masterful release in Moms.  True to their signature, the band continues to experiment with new sounds, both vocal and instrumental, and mostly with conventional means.  This is the rare band I have listened to that seems to possess an instinctive understanding of the line between too weird and too conventional.  Particularly here on Moms, the best songs (i.e., most songs on the album) are catchy, adrenaline-fueled rockers that consistently defy conventions of the form.  It is the playing with percussion on “Plumage,” the use of horns and general ambience on “Capsule,” and the perfect convergence of staccato brilliance on “Pique” that propel the opening of this album.  The songs that follow are never quite as concisely perfect as the first three, but “Skintercourse” is brilliant work and tracks like “Baton,” “Heavy Is As Heavy Does,” and “Don’t Mess with Latexas” are energetic, fascinating experiences in soundscaping.  And all this is not even to mention the artfulness of the lyrics throughout, a close reading of which would merit (deservingly) much more space than I’ve given myself for this review.  This is one of those albums that I wouldn’t have given a second thought to even five or six years ago, and I would have been missing out on something truly exciting.  Although it won’t make the rounds at mainstream awards shows and top ten lists at the end of the year, you should do yourself a favor and pick up a copy.




¡Uno! (Green Day)

Producer: Rob Cavallo and Green Day

Released: September 21, 2012

Rating:   2.5 / 5 stars

Top Two Tracks: “Stay the Night” & “Nuclear Family”

The way that Rolling Stone and other mainstream critics have praised this first in a trio of albums from Green Day, you would thing they equaled the artistry and intention of the past coupld Green Day concept albums. And no one can accuse the songs on Uno! of being less than energetic, but no one should really be praising them for their quality, either.  After the first two tracks, not much rises above the line of predictability, and if this is any indication of how the next two albums will be, then perhaps someone should have told the band to take the best songs from their sessions to release one strong album and save the rest for rareties releases.  Instead, they receive all the praise in the (mainstream music) world for pumping out tracks that fall far short of the artistry we’ve come to expect on recent work over the past decade and beyond, and one can only hope they won’t take this as a sign that plateauing is okay. 




Babel (Mumford & Sons)

Producer: Markus Dravs

Released: September 21, 2012

Rating:  3.5 / 5 stars

Top Two Tracks: “I Will Wait” & “Lover of the Light”

What can I say?  The signature sound that Mumford and Sons have established works for a reason: they’re passionate and strike a balance between throwback/folksy and in-your-face/high energy.  On Babel, “I Will Wait” is a fantastic track, and “Holland Road” and “Lover of the Light” are pretty freakin’ great.  Even the title track ain’t half bad.  And yet, after that, the rest of the album falls into line and blends together.  How their fame has become so infectious, I’ll never understand.  They are clearly a passionate band and make some good music, at least one truly great track per release, but I can’t explain or join the bandwagon following they’ve developed.