Ben Folds' Grand Experiment
Before we begin, allow me to establish my Ben Folds bona fides: I have none. That's right, I'm a music geek with a severe lack of appreciation of one of the geekiest. In fact, before I met Dustin, I don't think I'd ever listened to an entire Ben Folds album. But, after listening to Rowles go on and On and ON about him, I went on a Ben Folds bender a few months ago, and I concluded that... well, OK. Dude is talented. Immensely talented, even. He has a gift for lyrics that one rarely encounters -- despite all of the raving reviews I'd read, I'd never truly believed. Well, shit. Color me a believer. That said, I still wouldn't consider myself a fan. Maybe it's just not my pace, not my thing. But Ben Folds is like soccer to me -- I can appreciate the talent and the skill, but it's just not my thing. I enjoy listening to him, I'm consistently impressed with his lyrical and vocal abilities, but he's not in my regular rotation.
So, all of that brings us to his newest effort, Ben Folds Presents University A Cappella. It's an incredibly ambitious, not to mention unusual, effort. Essentially, Mr. Folds held auditions, and then selected 15 a cappella troupes to perform his own songs. All recording was done live (no isolated tracks, no mixing), in the most spartan, non-tech-heavy environments (dining halls, dorm rooms, a synagogue!). It's a bizarre and fascinating effort, and I recommend you read the project's full history here.
Oh, by the way, it's also worth mentioning that I'm not much of an a cappella fan. So it was with great trepidation that I began to wade through this album -- while I'm certainly intrigued by the concept, I was skeptical. Folds was apparently expecting such a reaction, going on to say, "Once they listen to it, I won't have to say anything. The album will speak for itself."
You know what? The cocky son of a bitch was right (woo hoo! -- DR). University A Cappella is, after several listens, a wonderful little album. It's completely engrossing, capturing all that is remarkable and beautiful about a cappella, with none of the cheese. What initially struck me as sheer gimmickry is, in fact, absolutely beautiful. I'm sure many of the Ben Folds fanatics are saying, "well, no shit, TK." But I think that someone like me enjoying the album so much is an even greater testament to Folds, and the project itself.
14 of the album's 16 tracks are recorded exclusively by the various a cappella groups, and the remaining two, "Boxing" and "Effington" done with Folds himself as the lead vocalist. Both techniques work marvelously. With Folds as the lead, it's an opportunity to appreciate all of the nuance and deftness of his singing, without background music occupying any of the space. "Effington," in particular struck me, with it's jazzy, uptempo chorus rife with singers in the background subbing in for the gently percussion. It's just all around smile-inducing.
However, I must admit that the album is at its best when Folds steps away from the mic and lets the various groups roll by themselves. "Selfless, Cold and Composed," as performed by the Sacramento State Jazz singers, features a female lead with a rich, sumptuous voice that made me swoon a bit. When the rest of the group kicks in, it really brings the song to new heights, but her vocals were the true standout. The first track, "Not The Same," (by The Spartones from Greensboro, NC) features a chorus of "No no no no no" and smoothly transitions into a soft, powerful lead vocal, and I'll be damned if I wasn't tapping my feet within seconds.
It gets better, too. "Fair," by the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire's Fifth Element, starts off slow, but with it's deft vocal arrangement and a slick sequence of interchanging lead singers, it quickly becomes completely addictive. "Brick," aka "That's the one about abortion, right?" is absolutely stellar. I realize that's the Folds song that everyone knows, but hell, I didn't, and The Ohio University Leading Tones knocks it out of the auditorium. The vocalist has a soft, subtle timbre to his voice that gave me chills, and the supporting voice work is suitably understated, creating a softer, less obtrusive yet still incredibly effective background. When the chorus kicks in and the lead gets to flex a bit, it just hooked me even further. Equally impressive (and not just because I grew up in the same town) is "Evaporated" by the Newtones of Newton, MA -- especially considering that they're all high school kids. It's a gentle, lullaby-like production, with a sweet and fluid flow and some powerful solo work.
The album isn't a perfect record -- there are a couple of tracks that, while the singers are clearly talented, the arrangements came dangerously close to putting me to sleep. "Magic," as performed by the University of Chicago's Voices In Your Head, is impeccably arranged, but just a little too slow, despite the presence of an absolutely luminous lead taking over halfway through (and the "bum bum, sha la la la!" bit is pretty sweet too). Yet that's one of the album's strength's -- even the weakest tracks have some damn compelling bits.
It's a difficult album to describe, and some of it really does take more than one listen. Yet, it's absolutely worth it, even to the coldest heart or the most hard-rocking listener. Ben Folds has done something that might be more commendable than a lot of the entries in his already impressive portfolio. He's taken an eccentric, oft-mocked musical style, thrown his songwriting and arranging ability into the mix, and created something that still succeeds in being not only unique, but completely engrossing.
TK writes about music for Pajiba. He likes dogs, raising the dead, and tacos. You can email him here.
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