Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Ben Folds - "Way to Normal"

Alright, back from my short hiatus. Sorry for the wait, folks, but a major move and a few rough weeks of work and travel have kept me away from the keyboard. Hopefully, I'll be posting much more regularly from here on out.

I've been a big Ben Folds fan since I was 15 and a friend of mine lent me Ben Folds Five's eponymous debut album. After that, I picked up the rest of the BFF studio discography (Whatever and Ever Amen, The Unauthorized Biography of Reinhold Messner) and both of Ben's solo albums (Rockin' the Suburbs, Songs for Silverman) and have listened to all of them on a pretty regular basis, letting those little earworm tracks take over my brain for days at a time.

So when I heard Ben was dropping Way to Normal in 2008, I was pretty excited. However, after downloading the album a week after its release I wasn't as excited as I was in the months leading up to it. Something about it just seemed... Dull. The album was, figuratively, left to gather dust on my iPod for the next few years.

Recently, I decided to give it a second chance and see if distancing myself from it would have changed my opinions. Overall, I'm less displeased with it, but it definitely does not live up to the legacy of Ben's first two solo albums.

There are still flashes of Ben's acerbic wit and outlandish humor on some tracks, like "You Don't Know Me (feat. Regina Spektor)" and "Bitch Went Nuts," yet there is still something missing from most of this album.

Perhaps that geeky tongue-in-cheek sense of humor that I got so used to with Ben's other albums has finally gotten stale after all these years. The opening track, "Hiroshima (B B B Benny Hits His Head)," is probably the best example of how relatively corny some of the lyrics on this album are. Yes, Ben fell and hit his head during a Japanese tour and decided to write a song about it. Sadly the song just sounds like a grimy bar story with Ben desperately attempting to bookend the song with his shy, wandering dialogue.

I really think that Dennis Herring's (Elvis Costello and The Imposters, Modest Mouse, Wavves) production took away from the potential this album had. It's hard to say that when you look at Dennis's track record, but after hearing the scratchy and somewhat "glitchy" sound on "Free Coffee," I really started forming some negative opinions on Ben's decision to let Dennis produce the whole album. Mind you, this is the first solo album Ben didn't have any production credits on.

Then there are the handful of tracks that are almost, almost classic Ben Folds tracks, but lyrically fall short of what Ben is capable of. "Effington," while it is a jumpy and upbeat critique of small American towns, some of the lyrics hold no water. Coming from Texas, though, the line "If there's a God/ He's laughing at us and our football team," brings a little smirk to my face whenever I should hear it.

Thankfully, the slower songs polish up an otherwise lackluster album. "Cologne" is reminiscent of Songs for Silverman's quiet and subdued sound, and "Kylie From Connecticut" almost sounds like something could have come from way back in the Whatever and Ever Amen days. The placement of these two tracks ("Cologne" near the middle and "Kylie..." closing it out) acted as something of a palate cleanser for me, taking me away from the more mediocre tracks and letting me enjoy Ben's work as a whole.

On the whole, Way to Normal isn't a bad Ben Folds album, it's just a slightly less exciting one. For the casual fans of Rockin' the Suburbs or the older BFF catalog, you may want to either steer clear of this one, or at least go into it without any expectations. For the diehards, this would probably go well for a few rotations before you'll need a break.

Letter Grade: B-

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