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?