BEN FOLDS: SO THERE (2015)
1) Capable Of Anything; 2) Not A Fan; 3) So There; 4) Long Way To Go; 5) Phone In A Pool; 6) Yes Man; 7) F10-D-A; 8) I'm Not The Man; 9-11) Concerto For Piano And Orchestra.
Back to solo format, or, more accurately, orchestral format — Ben Folds' latest project combines his composing, playing, and singing talents with those of the so-called «yMusic Ensemble» for a total of eight chamber pop songs, plus a bona fide piano concerto with the Nashville Symphony, probably not the hottest symphonic orchestra on the planet but a fairly qualified one, and quite proficient in playing and recording American composers from Ives and Gershwin all the way to Leonard Bernstein, which is precisely the tradition, I believe, to which Ben subscribes, combining old-school academic values with an element of lightweight (sometimes even slightly tacky) popular entertainment. But we will come back to this a little later.
Substantially, nothing much has changed since last we saw Ben Folds as a solo artist: this is still our old friend, the little nerdy-wimpy everyday life philosopher who is to singer-songwriting what Jerry Seinfeld is to comedy, and he still writes and sings these light, fragile pop tunes about broken hearts, hurt feelings, and society pressure that could be very depressing if only they showed any pressure at all, which they do not. But the chosen format, where the man completely frees himself from the conventions of a pop-rock combo, seems to have triggered some hidden reserves in his spirit, and the eight songs that form the bulk of the record are, on the whole, his finest effort in quite some time. At the very least, it was much more delightful to listen to this stuff than either the Ben Folds Five reunion, or that draggy Nick Hornby collaboration.
These are pop songs, for sure, not baroque chamber music imitations, and it's not as if the format were anything new (Fiona Apple? Regina Spektor? Sufjan Stevens?), but somehow Ben gets us exactly in the right mood with the first thirty seconds of ʽCapable Of Anythingʼ, when the piano, the violin, and the soft underlying percussion start hopping at a merry tempo, and an even cuter little woodwind flourish links the bars together. That's a delicious slice of pop catchiness there, along with hope, good humor, and just a tiny pinch of melancholia to tone down the extra sweetness. The arrangement shoots off colors in many directions, with cellos, trumpets, and occasional explosive sound effects added at will, and ultimately it seems to not matter much what the man is singing about — in fact, it does not seem to matter if he's singing at all, because the vocal hooks are easily the least attractive part of the whole bouillon.
Another big highlight is the title track, which starts out with a promising, suspenseful set of violin and cello lines, again played at a relatively fast tempo — then quickly progresses towards a china cup thunderstorm of romantic piano and violin waves gently lashing against each other... and what is the song about? "I will not forget you / There is nothing to forget". Uhh... okay, this is another fairly good moment to state how little one could care about Ben Folds' personal problems as long as he keeps composing decent music, because those problems don't have to have anything to do with the music. In fact, even without the ambitiousness of the Concerto, these songs are all about musical experimentation with the chamber orchestra format — a background against which Ben's «little man issues» seem trite and insignificant.
This is why the least impressive tracks here are the slow ballads that place Ben's vocals at the center of attention — ʽNot A Fanʼ has too much of that just-a-man-and-his-piano aura that made so much of his solo work so tedious, and, in a way, seems to have been written with the sole purpose of ad-libbing a barely audible "...so fuck you!" in the final bar; ʽYes Manʼ has a much more sophisticated vocal melody, but its multi-tracked vocals ultimately do it a disservice, drawing attention away from the music and onto the vocals. Much more charming is such a little novelty number as ʽF10-D-Aʼ — two minutes of a song about writing a song, with Ben spelling out the various notes of the tune-under-construction as it goes by; it is charmingly theatrical and also surprisingly efficient (you'd never think that a wholesome new song can be built like that, but somehow, it is almost a wholesome new song).
The last twenty minutes of the album are given over to the aforementioned Concerto, and it sounds... cool. It's not great innovative classical music — it's an experiment in the old-fashioned way, combining elements of Western classical, jazz, ragtime, vaudeville, and maybe showing just the tiniest bits of modern influences; for all I know, something like this could have been written by the likes of Copland as early as the 1920s, but then I don't know that much about Copland or any other classical American composer, so I don't exactly feel qualified to judge Ben's work here as a respectable homage or a pathetic joke. All I know is, all three movements sound interesting, and Ben's piano playing, wisely not straining for virtuosity, is constantly varied and engaging (and I am still trying to understand what exactly it is that he does at the beginning of the third movement — is that a prepared piano? is he picking at the hammers directly? whatever). The orchestra seems well engaged in the process, too, although for such a grand classical opening, the final movement ends in a somewhat disappointing wisp.
What ultimately wins me over is the humbleness of all this stuff. Symphonic and chamber arrangements in pop music often — in fact, the more recent, the more often — tend to come with a lot of pomp and self-aggrandizing, or extra-musical baggage that makes it all seem twice as deep as it really is (oh yes, I'm looking at you, Sufjan Stevens!); here, there is no extra-musical baggage whatsoever, just a guy who is really interested in wringing out a new set of emotions by combining his piano pop experience with adventurous combinations of string instruments. Adventurous, but also strictly traditional — not a move that might bring on wide-scale critical recognition, but certainly a move that is quite true to the man's artistic essence. In short, I'm perfectly happy about this, and not even a few mediocre slow ballads can prevent a thumbs up. Definitely a record that should reserve itself a nice place in the annals of «chamber pop» history.