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Ben Folds: What Matters Most
(New West, as broadcast on WVIA-FM 7/5/2023)
One of the more interesting and multifaceted artists to emerge from the alternative rock scene is Ben Folds. The North Carolina native has became known for his trio called the Ben Folds Five, with their blend of edgy, sometimes sarcastic songs that were based around Folds’ piano playing, rather than a guitar. He has described their music as “punk rock for sissies.” Prior to that, he played bass in one band and drums is another. He attended the University of Miami’s Frost School of music on a percussion scholarship, though he dropped out and after that dedicated himself to practicing piano. On piano with the Ben Folds Five, Folds and his group also found ready audiences in the UK and Australia, before the band broke up for the first time in 2000. Since then, Folds has been releasing a series of solo albums, though there was a Ben Folds Five reunion. Along the way, there were a collaboration with English author Nick Hormby, an album of college groups doing a cappella versions of his songs, and several collaborations with orchestras. He composed a piano concerto for the Nashville Symphony Orchestra, which appeared on his 2015 album So There which we reviewed on this series at the time, and since 2017 has been the first Artistic Advisor to the National Symphony Orchestra at the Kennedy Center in Washington. Among his other collaborators were “Weird” Al Yankovic, and Folds produced an album by Star Trek’s William Shatner, who returned the favor and appeared on Folds’ Fear of Pop album.
Now Ben Folds is out with What Matters Most, his first album since the orchestral project So There in 2015, and his first regular studio album since 2008. The new album reflects Folds’ multifaceted musical personality, with his piano being at the center of things, and his typically clever lyrics, with some touches of orchestral flourish. The album can seem at least semi-autobiographical, with some songs about relationships – Folds has been married four times – and the state of the world, addressing issues like misinformation and the people who fall for it.
Folds is joined by a variable cast, including some string players, among them Rob Moose of the group yMusic, who collaborated with Folds on the So There album, and the folk duo Tall Heights. Folds himself plays bass and some drums as well as piano on this Nashville-made album. Throughout What Matters Most, Folds combines sophisticated music with a melodic pop sense.
Opening is a fine track called But Wait, There’s More addressing some of craziness in the world of a pandemic and election denialism. <<>>
Clouds with Ellipses is an attractive waltz considering the ephemeral nature of much of life. <<>>
Exhausting Lover tells the story of a torrid one-nght stand, with a Folds’ sense of whimsy, in a kind of funky musical context. <<>>
Another highlight of the album is Kristine from the 7th Grade a melancholy waltz about reuniting with a classmate who has changed for the worse, falling for the nastiness and misinformation on line. <<>>
Back to Anonymous imagines escaping or perhaps fading from fame, and one’s feeling about that loss of stardom. <<>>
Folds crafts an upbeat pop setting in a deceptive seven beat rhythm for the song Winslow Gardens which is a provides a kind of lyrical vignette. It probably sprung out of the time when Folds was stuck in Australia during the pandemic, and took up residence in a house there. <<>>
The title track What Matters Most paints a picture of someone needing to move out of a house and sort through possessions to keep “what matters most.”
The folk duo Tall Heights provides the vocal harmonies for the track Moments, another song of reminiscence. <<>>
Ben Folds’ new album What Matters Most is a bit of a masterpiece as an intelligent, eclectic singer-songwriter recording that features great compositions both musically and lyrically with attractive melodies and vocal harmonies and yet with surprising musical sophistication. His work in the orchestral world is apparent in some of the pieces, but he manages to keep things fairly subtle and understated, keeping a personable presence throughout.
Our grade for sound quality is an “A.” Some of the Ben Folds Five’s recordings were known for their excessive volume compression. This album has a satisfying dynamic range with punchy percussion and the ebb and flow of the music fairly well captured. The mix has a warm, authentic sound.
Ben Folds has again drawn on his musical eclecticism and gift for melody to made an outstanding album.
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