BEN FOLDS: SUPERSUNNYSPEEDGRAPHIC (2003-2004; 2006)
[Speed Graphic]: 1) In Between Days; 2) Give Judy My Notice; 3) Protection; 4) Dog; 5) Wandering; [Sunny 16]: 1) There's Always Someone Cooler Than You; 2) Learn To Live With What You Are; 3) All U Can Eat; 4) Rockstar; 5) Songs Of Love; [Super D]: 1) Get Your Hands Off My Woman; 2) Kalamazoo; 3) Adelaide; 4) Rent A Cop; 5) Them That Got (live); [The LP]: 1*) Bitches Ain't Shit; 2*) Bruised; 3*) Still.
This is really a trick review. Instead of talking about Supersunnyspeedgraphic, The LP, released in 2006, I would rather talk about the three individual EPs that provide the bulk of material for this album. Some of the tracks were remixed and even received new instrumental parts, but many were lopped off in the process, and three extra tracks that were not part of the original EP series were introduced. As a result, the poor fans had to scoop up everything in order to keep track of things — but we will hang on to the original EPs and nonchalantly dismiss the «LP» as superfluous self-indulgence. It does add Ben's (in)famous cover of Dr. Dre's foul-mouthed ʽBitches Ain't Shitʼ, redone as a sentimental piano ballad, but if you've heard it once, I have no idea why you'd want to hear it again. (Admittedly, quite a few fans liked it so much that Ben had to do it for years onstage before making a man's decision to retire the gimmick — just goes to show that popularity ain't shit).
Anyway, the three EPs (Speed Graphic, Sunny 16, Super D) were originally planned as such because the majority of the tunes were «throwaways» — covers of old and contemporary artists; collaborations with pals; completed versions of old (sometimes very old) demos; or, vice versa, incomplete demos that would later resurface in more polished versions (ʽGive Judy My Noticeʼ). Only a few songs do not fit in any of these categories, making it impossible to generate something self-consciously important out of this mix. And perhaps for the better, because at this point in his solo career, Ben tended to drift a bit too close to «adult contemporary» standards when in the mood for something very serious. These three EPs, on the contrary, are relatively light, have a high share of simple-fun moments, and generally qualify.
Speed Graphic opens with a spirited cover of The Cure's ʽIn Between Daysʼ, a perfect Cure song to get re-interpreted by Ben (it's one of those rare romantic moments from Robert Smith, like ʽFriday I'm In Loveʼ, rather than his usual Goth gloom); includes ʽDogʼ, built on a fast spiralling piano riff that is at the very least one of Ben's flashiest, if not necessarily his best; and ends with ʽWanderingʼ, which takes itself very seriously and, like I just said, subsequently runs the risk of sounding too boringly self-important, but somehow he seems to get the ice-cold melancholia mood just right on that one — or maybe it's simply that the song's relaxed piano walk, fished out of the same chord can as ʽLet It Beʼ, agrees so well with the word "wandering".
Sunny 16, true to its title, generally sounds even more relaxed and party-oriented. The songs are fairly moralistic, but upbeat and «sunny» — ʽThere's Always Someone Cooler Than Youʼ and ʽYou've Got To Learn To Live With What You Gotʼ give their message away in the title, hammer it inside your head with the catchy chorus, but never for once let their moralizing get the best of the artist, who presents the songs as fun piano pop rockers rather than parables. Incidentally, the latter tune bears a remote resemblance to Nicky Hopkins' piano on the Stones' ʽSalt Of The Earthʼ — I wonder just how coincidental this was, especially since a couple other «rocking» passages here also bring to mind Nicky's classic style. For that matter, the melody of ʽRock Starʼ seems to quote a bit from George Harrison's ʽI Me Mineʼ (the "...baby the truth is, you need their approval..." bit), one coincidence too many. That's what you get by being raised on Sixties classics, subconscious inserts a-plenty.
The third EP is the slightest of all, with a hilariously hysterical cover of The Darkness' ʽGet Your Hands Off My Womanʼ, a polite two-minute live tribute to Ray Charles (ʽThem That Gotʼ), a surprisingly vicious anti-police rant (ʽRent A Copʼ — now Ben only has to pray that the next cop to write him out a speeding ticket has never listened to Super D), and what could possibly be the best song on this whole mix if I ever get around to listening to it another couple hundred times: ʽKalamazooʼ has a highly non-trivial, fairly «progressive», structure, with jazz chords, stops-and-starts, tempo changes, psychedelic orchestral breaks, whatever. (Allegedly, the man wrote it at the tender age of 19, but it must have acquired some additional layers since then).
Because of all this diversity, the resulting package, though much longer than Rockin' The Suburbs, is surprisingly easier to sit through. It also helps that Ben hired some real drummers to help with the recordings (bass duties seem to have been mostly handled by himself), so much of this stuff regains the liveliness and fussiness of the Ben Folds Five days, even if we could always use some more fat distorted bass on the rockers. All in all, I would well advise to concentrate on the original EPs rather than the «best-of» single album version — particularly since the bonus songs there aren't particularly great (the six-minute epic ʽStillʼ, taken from the soundtrack to the cartoon Over The Hedge, is really just an orchestrated bore); consider these here thumbs up as a recommendation for ʽWanderingʼ and ʽKalamazooʼ, which were inexplicably left off the LP, over ʽBitches Ain't Shitʼ, which is really not that funny, once you've had your fun.