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.

Bruce Hornsby: LIVE IN CONCERT – MGM Grand, Mashantucket, CT (March 27, 2009) – REVIEW

Originally posted 2009-03-28 23:43:50. Republished by Blog Post Promoter

By Chris Moore:

Right off the bat, I have to address how proud I am of myself that I was able to suppress the strong urge to title this concert review “That’s Just the Way It Was.”  As tempting as it was, I’m sure it’s already been used somewhere by someone…

At 8:02 on Friday night at the MGM Grand, only two minutes after the official start time of the concert, Bruce Hornsby appeared unceremoniously by walking out of the shadows, approaching his piano from stage right.  No announcements, no opening band.  (For a moment, I thought this might be a technician coming out for one last equipment inspection – and, if you’ve ever seen America perform, you know how many times it’s possible for a techie to inspect and tune  the guitars!)

As he neared the piano, he surveyed the assortment of papers strewn about the top of his piano.  Notes to himself?  A set list?  Lyrics for the less familiar tunes?

Negative, on all accounts.

Apparently, Hornsby does not work from a setlist.  Instead, he takes in requests from the audience before shows in the form 0f handwritten song titles slipped onto the stage.  His offical website reports, “Yes, it’s true. Bruce does not have a set list for his concerts. He comes up with the set list through requests from the audience. So, if you attend a concert, be sure to carry paper to write your requests on and place them on the stage.”  This is a novel approach, to be certain.  I wanted to participate in the process, but I have only been a “greatest hits” fan.  Aside from that, I would have had to design a paper airplane that was a marvel of physics in order to have my request reach the stage from my seat in the “Parterre” section of the MGM Grand theater, which is French for orchestra seats (and, apparently, English for “far away from the stage, but still technically on the ground level”).

After a brief, positive commentary from Hornsby about the array of requests, he started into the first song.  From the moment his hands touched the keys, it was apparent that he is truly a masterful musician, one of the few that is able to blend intricate classical arrangements into catchy pop/rock, country, and bluesgrass songs.

His first couple selections were played alone, but he was soon joined onstage by the Noise Makers (J.T. Thomas on keyboards, Bobby Read on saxophones (etc.), J.V. Collier on bass, Doug Derryberry on lead guitar, and Sonny Emory on drums).  Soon after, they launched into the first song with which I was familiar.  “Every Little Kiss” was all piano riffs and rock’n roll catchiness.  Well, maybe more adult contemporary than rock, but…

This was the first of several “greatest radio hits” tracks that Hornsby and the Noise Makers performed, much to the delight of my father and I.  Overall, the set list was a diverse collection of the hits, the deep tracks, and covers.  Some were note-for-note replicas of studio versions, such as “The Good Life,” while others were stripped apart and turned inside out, like “The Way It Is.”  There was a definite, if controlled sense of a jam band mentality.  During the final jam of the main set, Hornsby slipped from one song to the next, folding in a couple of high-energy verses from Bob Dylan’s “It Takes A Lot To Laugh, It Takes A Train To Cry.”  I had begun to tire of the jamming by the end of the show, and this fine touch really brought it all back home for me. (Please send your criticisms of that shameless pun to Chris, care of a comment below…)

At one point, Hornsby left the piano to strap on his accordion and take center stage for two songs.  As he approached the microphone with the new instrument, he commented that he had recently been with Levon Helm.  He introduced the following song by saying that this would please those in the crowd who enjoyed nostalgia, as this was a track from the band — namely, “Evangelne.”  The version did not disappoint and proved further that Hornsby is nothing if not an excellent multi-instrumentalist.

Hornsby was a personable, likable figure onstage.  In between songs, he kept a running commentary going, reflecting on the state of the economy and thanking everyone for coming out to see him perform all the same.  Early on, he revealed that Foxwoods management had told him to play for only 65 minutes.  Just over an hour for some who had paid $50 plus a “convenience” charge — that’s outrageous!  In his very laid-back manner, he said about as much and said they would stretch it to 90 minutes or so.  It sounded as if they told him that 65 minutes was the suggestion and 90 minutes was the outside limit.  He was true to his word, as the main set took the show’s running time to just over an hour and a half plus an encore.

Later on in the show, he expressed how happy he was that he remembered all the words to a track from his first album, a song that he played by request.

On the whole, this was a truly enjoyable concert.  I have an increased respect for Hornsby’s abilities as a pianist and performer, the Noise Makers were a flexible and vastly talented group, and the MGM Grand is a comfortable environment with excellent acoustics.  For my taste, there was too much of a jam band mentality on many of the selections — even Hornsby commented at one point that, due to the time limitations, the songs would be shorter than usual.  Maybe that’s not a bad thing, he said.  He continued, “There’s a fine line between self-expression and self-indulgence,” glancing with a grin to his bandmates.  I couldn’t agree more.

This concert was a bonding experience of sorts for me, as my father is a longtime fan of Hornsby and an even longer-time fan of the song “The Way It Is.”  While we both enjoyed the show, the low point of the show was indisputably their performance of the aforementioned hit single.  Aside from the initial keyboard blast of the familiar riff, the song was given a new, more jumpy tempo and the tune was stripped apart into an understated sequence of lines.  There was none of the charm of the studio version, and all biases being admitted, this version was nothing to brag about on its own.  For those five minutes, I appreciated what it must be like to attend a Dylan concert expecting to hear faithful versions of his hits, only to be met with deep tracks and rearranged versions.  Still, I maintain that the Dylan live experience offers up new and interesting, entertaining takes on his songs, whereas this was disappointing from all angles.

Regardless, the show as a whole was well worth the $35, and is an experience that I will remember fondly for years to come.  Part of that comes out of a bias, but this time a positive one!

The Best Spoken Word Tracks of 2010

Originally posted 2010-12-27 10:00:21. Republished by Blog Post Promoter

The BEST SPOKEN WORD TRACKS of 2010

Welcome back to the second and final week of the Weekend Review Presents… lists.  This is your source for twelve categories (plus a thirteenth honoring original Christmas music) designed to recognize a wide span of new music from the year of 2010.

The list today revolves around spoken word tracks.  Granted, there are not all that many songs with spoken word components, never mind the number out of those that are standouts.

That being said, there are a few that deserve mention.

The best of the year has to be “Things You Think,” the spoken word collaboration between Ben Folds, Nick Hornby, and Pomplamoose.  It’s a quirky little track with an outstanding set of lyrics and a pleasant chorus that’s sure to get stuck in your head.  This one’s not a surprise, as it was Ben Folds who orchestrated William Shatner’s spoken word/rock/alt/country/(insert genre here) album Has Been, one of the best albums of 2004 and arguably one of the best albums of all time.  (That is, if you can decide which genre it belongs in…)

Another highlight of the year in music is the closing track to the Scissor Sisters’ Night Work.  “Invisible Light” concludes with an excellent spoken word delivery that conjures — and respectably so — vintage late sixties/early seventies Moody Blues.  And, with that, I think it’s official: enough said.

A final addition to this brief list comes, surprisingly (for me), from Kanye West’s My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, an album that has more than made the rounds on this year’s “best of” lists.  I’m as surprised as anyone who knows me or is familiar with my tastes and opinions, but West’s album is a fine example of gathering the best aspect of several genres, perspectives, and directions in sound.  The opening track “Dark Fantasy” begins with a brief but fitting spoken word track that caught my attention for what followed.

All in all, this hasn’t exactly been a big year for great spoken word tracks.  As always, if I’ve missed any, please add them in below, and I’ll check them out immediately.  Barring that, these are my picks, and I invite you back for another list tomorrow!

1)  “Things You Think” – Ben Folds & Nick Hornby feat. Pomplamoose (Lonely Avenue bonus track)

2)  “Invisible Light” – Scissor Sisters (Night Work)

3)  “Dark Fantasy” – Kanye West (My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy)