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Ben Folds: So There
by George Graham
(New West Records As broadcast on WVIA-FM 9/2/2015)
Down through the past five or so decades, there have been periodic album projects with an established rock or pop artist collaborating with either an orchestra or classical type musicians. The Beatles with their classically trained producer George Martin made such projects interesting, and there were many such efforts back in the 1960s, and ever since then, from time to time. The last few years have seen a kind of resurgence of that idea, with orchestral albums by Sting, Peter Gabriel and Mary Chapin Carpenter being notable artistic successes.
This week we have another worthwhile such rock-orchestral collaboration from a gentleman who has been associated with the alternative rock scene. It’s Ben Folds and his new CD is called So There.
Pianist, singer and songwriter Ben Folds is a native North Carolinian and spent the earlier part of his musical career in the Tar Heel state, playing in bands at first on bass and drums, as well as piano. He studied music for a while, but dropped out very near his graduation. Hemanaged to land a music publishing deal in Nashville. In 1995, he formed the three-member Ben Folds Five which soon began to attract attention on the alternative rock scene with Folds raucous piano, and the rhythm section cranked up with things like a distorted bass sound. The group found audiences in the UK and in Australia, so they toured extensively. Folds described their music as “punk rock for sissies.” In 2001, the Ben Folds Five went their separate ways and Folds began a series of rather frequent solo projects. He has also collaborated with others including Star Trek icon Williams Shatner on an album in 2005. Over the years, Folds has done some collaborations with orchestras, including the National Symphony. He also served as a judge on one of those commercial TV music contest game shows, The Sing-Off. And he created music for the soundtracks of a pair of animated films.
Those who know Ben Folds for his Ben Folds Five recordings, might think that an orchestral album is something of a leap, but with his various side projects and previous collaborations, the concept of the new albums seems a lot more logical.
The new recording So There is divided into two parts. The first is “eight Chamber rock songs featuring yMusic” and the other an extended instrumental orchestral work in three movements performed by the Nashville Symphony. The result is probably Ben Folds’ most creative and satisfying album yet. The first portion, the “chamber rock songs” features yMusic, a New York-based chamber group, a sextet who appeared with considerable class on the 2011 album by Shara Worden and her group My Brightest Diamond. yMusic leader Rob Moose wrote some of the clever arrangements and co-composed one of the tunes with Folds. Folds’ Concerto for Piano and Orchestra is a more formal work in what classical afficianados would call “program music.” It has a cinematic quality that recalls contemporary film composers like John Williams or Danny Elfman. Otherwise, Folds is accompanied by a different group with drummer Sam Smith, guitarist Ryan Lerman and percussionist Chad Chapin. Folds draws on his experience playing drums in various bands in his earlier days, by playing percussion on some of the tunes.
The CD opens with a piece that epitomizes the clever orchestral mix of this album. Capable of Anything is a kind of typical Ben Folds song with the almost whimsical arrangement with chamber group. <<>>
Given the proximity to orchestral music in terms of the arrangements, Folds has written several tunes in waltz time. Not A Fan is one of them, and the music and lyrics go together quite well. <<>>
One of the album’s highlights is its title track So There. It’s an upbeat song that quite effectively uses the colors of the orchestral instrumentation. <<>>
The liner notes say that the song Phone in a Pool was recorded in Ireland apparently while Folds was on tour, with yMusic adding their parts later. It’s also more in the regular style of Ben Folds. <<>>
Folds biography says that he has been married four times so far, and the lyrics to the song Long Way to Go seem to be about going through with a divorce decree. <<>>
One of the more clever songs on the album is F10-D-A, which is basically a music lesson. On his website, Folds jokes that it’s a song for teaching children how to curse. <<>>
The Chamber Songs part concludes with I’m Not the Man, another piece in a flowing 6/8 time that again effectively uses the yMusic chamber ensemble. <<>>
As mentioned, Folds’ Concerto for Piano & Orchestra has a distinctly cinematic quality, as if the soundtrack for an imaginary film. The Nashville Symphony, conducted by Giancarlo Guerrero, performs it competently, but without a lot of passion or drama. The first movement spans a lot of styles and moods, showing a pastiche of influences. <<>>
The Concerto follows rather typical form, with a middle movement showing some changes in mood <<>> while the momentum picks up for the third movement. <<>>
Ben Folds’ new CD So There shows another facet of Folds’, music with the collaboration with the chamber group yMusic and the full orchestra. With his previous ventures into film scoring and his past performances with orchestras on the road, Folds is not entering entirely uncharted waters, but it will be something of a surprise to fans of the Ben Folds Five. The yMusic chamber group are, as usual, brilliant in applying their clever approach to Folds’ music, and they add a lot to the album. The Concerto is competent but unexciting and borrows a lot of stylistic elements from contemporary film scores. But it’s definitely not in vain. The work is enjoyable.
Our grade for sound quality is close to an “A” for the tracks with yMusic, and a full grade “A” for the recording of the concerto. The small-group recordings were fairly un-colored by needless studio effects, and were more open and with better dynamic range than most of Folds’ previous work, and the concerto was, fortunately, recorded like a proper classical album with full dynamic range.
Rock musicians dabbling with classical instrumentation and influence have had a mixed record of how well they work from an artistic standpoint. Ben Folds has created one of the better recent such projects, thanks to the creativity and eclecticism of the yMusic chamber sextet, and Folds’ good writing.
(c) Copyright 2015 George D. Graham. All rights reserved.
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