Friday, October 29, 2010

Lonely Avenue: Ben Folds Adds Music & Melody To Nick Hornby's Words

I am not a fan of The Compact Disc. Sure, when it first came out I was as charmed as anyone by the lack of surface noise and the previously non-transferable bright end of the recording spectrum. I sold myself out to it exclusively — my first collection of stereo components did not include a turntable. But it did not take long for the honeymoon to end.

Unlike its more commanding parent, The Long Playing Record, which demands to be either stored away or put on prominent display, there is something about the physical format of the CD that prompts itself toward clutter. There is no attractive way to display these little plastic boxes (or “jewel cases” as they've been erroneously, or ironically, named). And the leaflets they protect are a scant product. What additional material do they give the listener to ponder? A photograph or two of the band, lyrics in an aloof san serif font and the usual “thank you”s — God, Gibson & Grandma. If that. Sometimes all the customer gets is a track listing. When That Corporate Digital Behemoth finally announced it had figured out a way to provide listeners with the sound and performers with a little chump change, I actually rejoiced. Perhaps now I could finally remove all that — here’s the word again — clutter from the living room and refurbish the place with the antique and ornate forms of old: books and albums. Wife permitting, of course.

But there are exceptions — three of them, in fact. That's right: three CDs I would recommend solely for the packaging.

#3: I, Flathead, Deluxe Edition by Ry Cooder
(A). The “shocking full-length false memoire” (sic) enclosed is beautifully formatted, if less-than-compelling, reading. In this case, the substance of it exists as a loving vanity stand for the real material: one of the finest collections of songs to come out in the last five years.

#2: Lonely Avenue, Deluxe Edition by Ben Folds & Nick Hornby, with four stories by Hornby and photographs by Joel Meyerowitz (A). Anyone who likes Hornby’s writing can't help but be pleased with this purchase. Four stories, lyrics, liner notes and an e-mail exchange between the collaborators — for this content alone, it is money well spent. As for the music . . . more later.

#1: 10,000 Days by Tool (A). I’m pleased to see that this CD still seems to be required stock in places that still sell CDs. If you don’t yet have a copy of this, hike out to your music store as soon as possible. You should spot this pretty quickly: it is the largest and ugliest looking thing on the rack. It looks like a fat plastic wallet festooned with a pair of cheap magnifying glasses. In fact, those lenses are required for viewing the contents of the package — photos of the band members posing as alchemists, esoteric illustrations by Alex Grey — which are laid out in stereoscopic 3-D splendor. Anyone with the slightest yen for metal should dig the music, too, for its competent use of contrapuntal rhythms and lack of cookie-monster vocals. And for its sincere use of esoterica (also on display on their website). This is the kind of package that gets a guy like Erik Davis very excited, which, once upon a time, was the kind of thing that made rock ‘n’ roll a garish circus you could not take your eyes off of.

Alright: so we have a single Sony product nudging out two by the vastly more ambitious Nonesuch Records. Onward, then, to Lonely Avenue and its music.

First spin: it struck me quite forcefully, as I listened to Folds stretch a musical phrase to make room for Hornby’s syllables, just how suggestive successful pop music has to be, of necessity. And I’m not just speaking of the sexually suggestive, although a little of that goes a very long way. Successful pop music manages to evoke all manner of yearning and regret, shame and joy. The more implicit the sentiment, the more powerful the song. Unfortunately for the cognizant among us, suggestiveness can be accomplished by bluntly stupid lyrics attached to a simply constructed hook. This was made obvious to me when Steve Almond splenetically rendered the unintentional hilarity in the lyrics of Toto’s “Africa” as I read before bed. Next morning, of course, I was passionately singing the offending song as I showered.

As Folds sang Hornby’s incisive lyrics, I found myself chafing against the explicit and yearning for the implicit. Today’s “alternative” acts might be overly smitten with the nonsensical, but any performer who allows the listener to fill in the gaps — no matter how abysmal — is paying the patron the highest compliment. The first time around with this collection, I too frequently felt spoken to.

Subsequent plays, while not as off-putting, still weren’t winning me over. Folds’ music was sweeping, snappy, polished: was I to lay the fault solely at Hornby’s feet? I ruminated over the lyrics. The only song I really dislike is “Levi Johnston’s Blues” for subject matter that already lacks nuance, and which grates on me nearly as much as Johnston’s on-again/off-again mother-in-law does. As for the rest, the best of them approach the comic defeatism of Steely Dan’s “What A Shame About Me” (“Your Dogs” “Password” “Doc Pomus”) minus the reliably ironic back-beat, or unfold with Elvis Costello-like moribundity (“A Picture Window” “Claire’s Ninth”) minus the reliably personal stake that Costello has in all his songs (sorry, Ben, but that’s your department).

Ah, but don’t mind me. Odds are I’m still nursing a grudge for the less-than-glowing review Hornby gave Steely Dan ten years ago. “Steely Dan needs to loosen up a little,” wrote Hornby: “pop music is still pop music, no matter how smart you are.” Any doctor can prescribe, of course. And there is a moment on Lonely Avenue when the “loosen up” is attended to: we hear Ben Folds delivering “Belinda” with all the balls-out ardor of a younger Little Richard. It’s a hint of the sort of playing around that went on behind the scenes as he and Hornby tried to reconnoiter their way into the project, and it’s catchy as hell. Unfortunately, it’s a last-minute throw-on: the final 11 seconds of the album’s final song.

Oh well. Buy it for the package. Maybe you'll love the music, maybe you won't. Either way, you won’t be sorry.

Metacritic tabulates a metascore of 63 for Lonely Avenue, here.

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