CD review

Oct 21, 2010

Self-consciously yours, Nick and Ben

CD Review Ben Folds and Nick Hornby Lonely Avenue (Warner Music)

CD Review
Ben Folds and Nick Hornby
Lonely Avenue
(Warner Music)

hornbyfolds This is an album of great highlights and utter crap, an oddly self-conscious outing by two artists who in some ways were made for each other and who in some ways bring out the worst in each other.

Ben Folds, in case you don’t know, wrote the music and performs the songs, while novelist Nick Hornby provides the lyrics.

Basically, I don’t like what they’ve come up with.   Ben Folds’ music, steeped in Beatles’ influences by way of the Electric Light Orchestra, is, on most tracks, over-produced and cloying. It is full of key changes and time signature changes and instrumentation and vocal overlays that, to my ear, interfere with some potentially nice melodies. Yes, yes, I know that’s just the way he is, but an album full of it drives me a bit nuts.

There are a bunch of musicians around at the moment who do this sort of thing, who can’t leave a good tune alone and feel the need to insert funny vocalisations, odd noises, keyboard fiddlings, strings and harps and other bells and whistles (sometimes, literally, bells and whistles).   I’m looking at you Regina Spektor and you Tori Amos and probably even you Kate Bush, even though you aren’t really around at the moment but I suspect that you — I can sing like a big girl/I can sing like little girl too — are probably the source of this sort of thing.

Anyway, I wish they’d stop. I wish Ben Folds would stop. It’s all a bit self-consciously clever.

The best tracks on this album are undoubtedly ‘Picture Window’ and ‘Practical Amanda’ and guess what? They are the tracks with the least embellishment, the songs where the beautiful melody is allowed to shine through almost unadorned and where Folds’ voice is at its absolute best.

‘Picture Window’ in particular is a classic song, one for the ages, and probably the best lyric on the album too.

Which brings me to the lyrics.

As you would expect, Nick Hornby has a way with words. He’s also funny and thoughtful and intelligent but somehow it doesn’t quite work.  It’s all a bit self-consciously clever.

Take the opening track, ‘A Working Day’. Nick obviously wanted to get something off his chest:

Some guy on the net thinks I suck
And he should know
He’s got his own blo

Cringe factor worthy of The Australian. I don’t know, maybe we should all be reassured that a writer as successful as Hornby is still filled with enough self-doubt to feel the need to write a song like this. Or maybe we should tell him to grow up and laugh off insults from people who will never come anywhere near matching his achievements.

Build a bridge, Nick, and get over it.

Just as I wish Folds would tone down his songs a little, kill some of the effects and embellishments, I wish Hornby had a bit more confidence in his ability to express emotion. The songs are littered with expletives and colloquialisms and I guess you can see their use in two ways. The positive reading is that they inject a bit of realism and humour into the songs and serve to undercut what could become saccharine and sentimental.

The other way to read it — and the way that I think is closer to the mark — is that Hornby is just that bit too uncomfortable to express genuine emotion straight and so feels the need to distance himself from something that otherwise might be too raw.

I guess it could be a bit of both.

At the end of the day the album sounds like the soundtrack to a Broadway musical, not a bad thing necessarily, but it tells you something about the net effect.  Folds writes big, clever tunes that dance and play all over the place in precisely the way the music for a Broadway show does, while Hornby has provided a set of storytelling lyrics that are conversational enough to have been translated from dialogue: you could easily imagine any of these tracks inserted into the pregnant pause musicals provide so that the characters can burst into song.

Maybe they should adapt High Fidelity for the stage?

Anyway, I had big problems with the album, despite the fact that there is some great stuff in there.  If they ever release an unplugged version, I’d certainly give it a listen.

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7 thoughts on “Self-consciously yours, Nick and Ben

  1. Hamish

    Interesting review Tim. I was quite looking forward to this album, being a fan of Hornby’s.

    Hornby is very good at writing from the point of view of insecure men, so perhaps his lyrics are a portrayal of that (or perhaps he is just an insecure man and is good at writing about it).

    Nonetheless, I agree about the problems with bells and whistles (and also agree that High Fidelity should be a stage show). Again, good review.

  2. trixie

    Heard a couple of the tracks (Your Dogs and Levi Johnston’s Blues) unembellished when Ben was touring last year, and yes, they do stand up well. But I like the add-ons in the studio versions. You want menace, Pedro? Let me refer you to the strings leading up to the line “We talk and it turns out we don’t believe in abortion”. The only thing less empowered than Levi in this song is the moose.

    As for wishing “Hornby had a bit more confidence in his ability to express emotion”, he’s made a successful career out of emotionally inarticulate males (in fiction and non-fiction) so why stop now? Hence the big breasts and complimentary champagne in Belinda – the greatest Barry Manilow song he never wrote.

    But credit where it is due – getting the word ‘urinals’ into a love song – and making it sound pretty – is no mean achievement. Well done Nick and Ben!

  3. Pedro of Canberra

    Aww, Tim. You’re such a roots guy…

    I like this record a lot. It’s smart Pop. Agree about Belinda (cloying and phoney), and the lyrics are a noticeably forced at times (Hornby’s first effort, you’ve got to expect some clunky bits where Ben has to jimmy them into shape, but even that becomes less noticeably after repeat listening), but Doc Pomus and Your Dogs are just great tracks. Picture Window is a classic. And the best line on the album is in Levi Johnston’s Blues:

    “I say Mother-in-law? No we ain’t getting married
    They say, you will be soon, boy, she just announced it.”

    Ooh, the menace. Telling.

  4. Jason Whittaker

    You’ve already said it Tim, but it bears reinforcement: this really is the embodiment of everything Folds does. He is part brilliant musician – and he doesn’t get enough credit for that; as a pianist he is breathtaking – and part insufferable smartarse. Hornby brings the smartarse out in him even more.

    I’m a long-time fan of Folds, waiting patiently for him to produce THE album. The one where he writes 12 beautiful melodies – which he’s more than capable of – and leaves the wise-cracks out of it. He’s never been a great lyricist, so I thought this collaboration might have been the one. But it still frustrates. Despite its touches of class.

  5. Tim Dunlop

    Totally agree about ‘Belinda’, David. Sort of funny in the context of the song, but once you’ve got the joke? Song ruined.

    Worth noting that the chorus for ‘Levy’ is actually a quote from the kid’s Facebook page. But it’s the same problem: okay, that’s fine, but it wears thin pretty quickly.

  6. David Roberts

    Belinda also could have been a great song – the big breasts & what was that tacked on the end? Levi Johnston’s Blues – great verse & lead in to the chorus, lyrics in the chorus…awful. While mildly amusing don’t work for the song at all. Claire’s ninth was the least annoying for me, but so like 20 other Folds/BF5 songs compare “Losing Lisa” really nothing new…

    Some nice lyrics: “It was just near misses, air kisses. Once in a book store, Once at a party. She came in as he was leaving” from “From Above”, shame Folds didn’t do much with that song. Haven’t read Nick Hornby, maybe that’s my problem.

  7. Tweets that mention Self-consciously yours, Nick and Ben – Johnny's in the Basement --

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