Sunday, September 26, 2010

Ben Folds & Nick Hornby

For much of the brief history of pop music, many compositions were produced by the collaborations of both musicians and lyricists. Those with the ability to craft a tune were not often also blessed with ways with words. The brothers Gershwin were notable examples of this concept, as were Broadway partnerships of Rogers and Hammerstein along with Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice. But beginning with Buddy Holly and cemented with the arrival of The Beatles, the performers of rock music were increasingly expected to the creators of their material, both words and music. The most notable exception to this format was the decades of collaboration between Elton John and Bernie Taupin. Bucking these trends is today's release of Lonely Avenue featuring the work of piano popsmith Ben Folds and bestselling novelist Nick Hornby.

For much of the collection, the partnership results in exactly the sort of offerings those familiar with the previous work of both artists would expect: smart, tidy pop confections with strong narrative and accessible structure. The brief opening salvo, "A Working Day," explores territory common to both songwriters and authors: cynics, especially the internet-based variety like yours truly so ubiquitous these days, as Folds comments, "some guy on the net thinks I suck, and he should know – he's got his own blog!" Moreover, it recalls much of the self-absorbed punditry Hornby flavored his Duncan character in his 2009 novel, Juliet, Naked.

Folds settles into one of his typical gentle ballads on the follow-up, "Picture Window." Hornby crafts the story of a hospital patient struggling with their affliction, while the chorus melody is vintage Folds, as the upper reaches of his tenor range offering the perfect vehicle for Hornby's character's jaded take on hope: "you know what hope is: hope is a bastard; hope is a liar, a cheat and a tease. Hope comes near you, kick its backside, got no place in days like these." It's both beautiful and dispiriting.

The ballad comes in stark contrast to its successor, the ripped-from-the-headlines "Levi Johnson's Blues." A direct account of the young Wasillian's saga, Hornby doesn't parlay some forced caricature depicting Johnson's absurdity. Instead, he lets Johnson do it himself via his own Myspace page, turning his self-description involving moose hunting and hockey into a chorus Folds seems all too eager to deliver. From this end of the speakers, it seems like a construction the duo was able to devise in a matter of minutes.

The bulk of the record is filled-out through a number of character-based narratives such as "Doc Pompus," "Practical Amanda," "Clare's Ninth" and "Saskia Hamilton" that incorporates the strengths of the collaboration: Hornby's talent for devising characters that are always distinct and flawed with Folds' hunch for wrapping these stories in clever and seemingly obvious hooks and melodies. Indeed, the grouping of tracks are much in the style of Folds' Rocking the Suburbs work such as "The Ascent of Stan," "Zak and Sara" and "Fred Jones Pt 2." It should be noted, though, that listeners familiar with Folds' general musical approach will be surprised by the heavy use of synthesizers on "Saskia Hamilton." While it might not appeal to the core of the Folds fan base, its also nice to hear a bit of variety in output from the pianist.

The true realization of the partnership, though, is in the album's finale, the snarky ballad, "Belinda." Telling the story of a "one-hit wonder with no hits" who's forced every night to battle his way through his small-scale claim-to-fame number (a song with the same name as the actual Folds/Hornby title), a song that's long since lost its meaning. While its prevailing humor is the overriding sentiment here, it perhaps also includes an underlying meaning for the pair of writers in relation to how their audience truly feels about their work. As Folds ponders why "no one ever wants to hear the song he wrote for Cindy..." once can't help but wonder if it refers to Folds fans who only come to hear "Brick" or Hornby readers only drawn to books like High Fidelity. Maybe that's too much meaning to infer here, but as the collection's longest number at over six minutes, its lengths suggests a bit more intention than something of a shorter span.

Come for: "Picture Window"
Stay for: "Levi Johnson's Blues"
You'll be surprised by: "Belinda"

Monday, September 20, 2010


By taking the crisp oceanside song structures of The Beach Boys and melding them with the unsettled, nervous energy of the Ramones, San Diego-based trio Wavves has a talent for mixing seemingly unconnected elements of lo-fi noise and surf rock to arrive at a distinct sound. Largely a front for talented, but troubled singer/guitarist Nathan Williams, the groups third full-length release, King of the Beach – released July 13 – presents an evolving direction for the young group.

The lead-off and title track delivers exactly what a tune bearing that name should: clean, breezy and fun. Williams has dialed-up his best early-era Brian Wilson songsmithing, with a jangly, 3-chord progression fueling the number like a surfboard aloft a wave. And yet, his nasally sneer recalls no wispy Beach Brothers harmonies, but instead a Joey Ramone wail. It's a great opening cut and its entirely appropriate in its 2:38 run time. No surfing tune should ever take longer.

A collection of playful and spirited tracks in a similar vein follows, with titles including "Super Soaker," Baseball Cards" and "Linus Spacehead," evoking a carefree approach befitting of its face-paced style. These offerings are no more complex than Williams' clanging guitar work and the rhythm section of bassist Stephen Pope and drummer Billy Hayes just plowing ahead with fury. Here, the trio stakes out ground between recent power-punk chargers like Titus Andronicus and Tokyo Police Club and the more simplified, four-track sound of the Apples in Stereo.

And yet, while Wavves do great work at honing their power-punk bona fides, they also add a secondary area of direction through numbers like "When Will You Come," "Take On the World" and "Convertible Balloon" more informed by more adventurous contemporaries like Passion Pit and Vampire Weekend. In fact, the latter of this group, "Convertible Balloon," takes on much of the flavor being pioneered by Buffalo's Mike Angelakos and his comrades in Passion Pit, with Williams nearly replicating Angelakos' signiture falsetto. While Angelakos certainly has the groove down better, the sonic differences between the album's opening number and this looser track demonstrate the group's versatility, one they'll hopefully exploit with more rigor on forthcoming projects.

To that end, Wavves offers a glimpse of where they might be heading in "Green Eyes," a cut that seems to be the type of offering that might be presented by Colin Meloy should he ever front a punk band. Sure, there's no mistaking the song for "Sixteen Military Wives" or "We Both Go Down Together," but Williams' phrasing and turns in songwriting are very much within the same territory marked by the Decemberists' frontman. It's a well-constructed piece of pop music and should encourage Williams and his mates to attempt similar efforts in the future.

Come for: "King of the Beach"
Stay for: "Convertible Balloon"
You'll be surprised by: "Green Eyes"

P.S. - Wavves will be appearing at the Rock & Roll Hotel in Washington, D.C. on September, 27th.

Tuesday, September 7, 2010


When a band waits a half-decade between records early in their career and then issues a spate of releases in quick succession later on, its obvious a significant transition has occurred. This is true with Hurley, to be released by seminal 90's alt-pop heroes Weezer on September, in relation to its recent albums such as Raditude, Weezer (the Red Album) and Make Believe. From its debut release, Weezer (the Blue Album), in 1993 until the end of the decade, the Southern California-based quartet only offered a single follow up, 1996's excellent Pinkerton – which is often only slightly correctly credited with launching the emo-alternative genre (Pinkerton is far too muscular and deft to be associated with such whiners). Meanwhile, 2003's Make Believe launched a foursome of new releases through the 2000's first decade, culminating with Hurley.

Weezer generally seems to present two types of albums: power-pop infused lighter material and cohesive, heavier collections. Of the first type are the color-themed, self-titled records (Blue, Green and Red) and its most recent Raditude, while the later concept can be found in Pinkerton, Maladroit, Make Believe and now Hurley. Here, most of the brash innuendo of Raditude is dispatched with – save for the gnarly "Where's My Sex," although an argument could be made it's in-line with Pinkerton's outstanding "The Good Life" in substance and direction. But in tone and tempo, Hurley most closely reflects Make Believe than any other Weezer product, with largely serious themes and heavy song structures with plenty of guitar crunch from frontman Rivers Cuomo and guitarist Brian Bell and thunderous percussion from drummer Pat Wilson.

Lead-off track and first single, "Memories," is a typical Weezer arena rock construction, with its aggressive tempo harking back to "Holiday" off the Blue Album and its highlights of synthy keyboards, while its successor, "Ruling Me" blends Cheap Trick-style hooks and Bun E. Carlos drums with an expanded vocal range from Cuomo. Later on, the meaty ballad "Trainwrecks" introduces an Arcade Fire anthemic dimension and some clever lyrics like "we don't update our blogs; we're trainwrecks." Touche, Mr. Cuomo.

A couple of the most revealing numbers indicating the collection's overall tone are found later in the Springsteen flavor of "Hang On" – a sound Weezer has not explored before – and the Pinkerton-era influences on "Brave New World," with Cuomo at his most self-aware, confessing, "I've been scared to make a move." It could be an honest reflection of his aversion to more personal themes in his songwriting that has been an ongoing undercurrent of Cuomo's career. Oddly placed midway through the set, though, is "Unspoken," an unadorned solo piece for most of its duration until the band picks up near the end. It would have found a better home amongst his 2005 solo demos. I mean, seriously, strings in a Weezer song?!

Come for: "Memories"
Stay for: "Trainwrecks"
You'll be surprised by: "Hang On"