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"

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