Tag Archives: Ben Folds

Shuffle Lessons, Vol. 6

1. “Us Against The World” – Coldplay, Mylo Xyloto

I listened to this tune for about a minute and a half and couldn’t think of a thing to say. It’s a really pretty song, as most Coldplay songs are, and I think that’s the problem. Since they released X&Y in 2005, they’ve seemed to work on perfecting their very specific sound. Viva La Vida was the last album I feel was a stretch for them. And this isn’t meant to rip Coldplay apart, they could release 10 albums of “their” musical sound and I’d love each one. I just don’t know how much evolution the band has left, based strictly on the evidence from Mylo Xyloto. It’s a great album, but it’s no different thematically or musically from the last few. This particular song highlights that pretty well. A really nice acoustic guitar strum, layered with ephemeral, reverbed and echoed electric guitar riffs. Don’t get me wrong, this is a gorgeous song. It’s inspiring. It’s just not a stretch for Coldplay.

2. “Call Me The Breeze” – John Mayer, Paradise Valley

One of the very newest additions to my Top 1000, as this album just came out four days ago. I’ll do my best to focus on the song itself rather than the entire album, about which I have a lot of thoughts. Confession time, I had zero clue when I first saw the track list of Paradise Valley that this was a cover. It was only after looking at liner notes that I saw this was originally a J.J. Cale tune. Which was an interesting connection to make, because when I first heard this song, I immediately thought of anything Eric Clapton has done past the year 2001. This is a smooth little number that meanders along at a nice little clip, and JM’s guitar tone is seriously a carbon copy of recent Clapton. Again, this isn’t bad, it’s just nearing a bit too close to derivative for me. For my money, JM has a dicey track record when it comes to covers:

  • Hendrix’s “Bold As Love” – A
  • Cream’s “Crossroads” – C-
  • Tom Petty’s “Free Fallin'” – A+
  • Police’s “Message In A Bottle” – B-
  • Ray Charles’ “I Got A Woman” – A

Throw this song on that list and I give it a B. It’s a nice song, pretty fun, good for a few listens, but it’s just so easy to not realize it is on until after it ends and you realize there is silence or another song started. There’s no reason I’d listen to this one twice in a row.

3. “Alma-Ville” – Vince Guaraldi Trio, Jazz Impressions Of Black Orpheus

Good grief! This is as close to a Charlie Brown song as we’ll probably get on this list. Vince Guaraldi is the genius behind all of the music of the Charlie Brown cartoons from the ’60s, and therefore is the genius behind the sound of my every single Christmas season. This is one of his explicitly non-Charlie Brown themed albums, and it’s by far my favorite. Guaraldi had this style of piano playing that was so very unique. That’s why you can hear when a Charlie Brown cartoon is on. His style was so distinctive, and it permeates all the music he released. This album is full of rhythms that change ever so slightly, song sections that highlight drum brushes and hi-hats, bouncy upright bass (imagine Pigpen playing it), and Guaraldi’s own wandering riffs. I feel like to play his music well, you’d have to look kind of dopey. Just loose and silly and behind the beat a tad. That’s what this song feels like to me, just a tad dopey. Not caring what section comes next or how to nail the transition. It keeps it very light and colorful.

4. “Reptile” – Eric Clapton, Reptile

This is the opening track off of my favorite Clapton record. I’m not sure why, but my ear tends to gravitate toward smoother, fully-produced music. I love studio-recorded music that’s been tweaked and engineered and mastered well. This album is the second in a phase-change in Clapton’s career. Pilgrim started this move towards blues-based pop songs with slick production, and this album perfected it. This song is a beautiful instrumental, and the tone of Clapton’s electric is what I wish I could always make my guitar sound like. It overlays a very bossa nova rhythm section, with brushes and some pretty awesome rhythmic finger picked acoustic guitar. For any aspiring lead guitarists, this tune is also a fantastic exercise. I learned the entire lead guitar part note for note, and it was a great lesson in how to construct an awesome solo, how to incorporate great blues licks in a non-blues style, and simply how to get your fingers to move fast. Clapton’s entire lead part on this song is an exercise in understated soloing. He creates a memorable lead line without overtaking or monopolizing the entire song, which is awesome. Clapton’s versatility shines so brightly here.

5. “Doc Pomus” – Ben Folds & Nick Hornby, Lonely Avenue

Another fascinating tune off of BF and Hornby’s collaborative album. What’s interesting is that Lonely Avenue was written in the style of the men BF sings about in this song, and that title is even an homage to one of the biggest hits they wrote. Doc Pomus was a songwriter in the ’50s and ’60s, writing songs for a host of popular artists including Ray Charles, Elvis Presley & and Dr. John. He often collaborated with Mort Shuman; Shuman providing music while Doc Pomus would write the lyrics (how BF and Hornby created this album). Doc Pomus was stricken with polio as a child and was in crutches or a wheelchair for his whole life. This song describes a bit of his life, where he spent his time, celebrities with whom he rubbed elbows, and the normal/crazy folk he came in contact with and who provided inspiration for his songs. This song almost becomes a sort of statement on songwriting as a therapeutic output. The second verse/last tag is a reference to how Doc Pomus described himself later in life:

And he could never be one of those happy cripples / the kind that smile and tell you life’s OK / He was mad as hell, frightened and bitter / He found a way to make his isolation pay

It’s also a very musically Ben Folds song. One of the great things about BF’s music is that it all sounds very Ben Folds without sounding overly derivative or incestuous. He doesn’t ever really need to shoot for far outside his wheelhouse because he’s got such an eclectic songwriting style that allows for a wide range of sounds and styles. This song is a great example of the Ben Folds sound in the post 2005 world.

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Top 10 Favorite Ben Folds (Five) Songs

10. “Brainwascht” – Ben Folds, Way To Normal

This is a prime example of how wickedly biting Ben Folds can be with his songwriting. Story goes that when Ben Folds was with his now-ex-wife Frally Hynes, there was a couple with whom they were friends and collaborated with on the album Fear of Pop, Vol. 1. Fast forward to 2006, Ben and Frally divorce, the couple sides with Frally, and they write a song about the whole situation.

Brainwascht is BF’s response. He calls them out for using a song to comment on a personal relationship by using a song to comment on a personal relationship. But he does it so much better, commenting not only on the inappropriate use of his personal life in someone else’s song, but on their song itself. “There’s something wrong / being copied on a memo / in the form / of a bad country demo…” (Admittedly, their song does suck.) And most pointedly of all, he calls out their hypocrisy by mentioning how their own relationship ultimately failed like Ben and Frally’s. Moral of the story: Don’t emotionally tussle with Ben Folds, for he will cut you down with his razor sharp songwriting.

9. “Army” – Ben Folds Five, The Unauthorized Biography of Reinhold Messner

BF(F) absolutely rock. Their emotional range is unlike any other artist I’ve ever listened to. They have songs that make you want to break up and weep for weeks, and songs that make you want to jump and shout with good feeling. “Army” falls into the latter category. This is an outstanding anthem song about being young and not knowing what the hell you’re doing with your life and fighting the demons of your past and your family history and your broken down social relationships and accepting all of it and continuing in spite of it. Lyrics alone, it’s not completely as uplifting as I just described; while it’s got a thread of that carry-on nature, it’s also got a clear undercurrent of constantly being on the edge of giving up. But these lyrics on top of this song, and you’ve got an anthem on your hands. Powerful and fun and celebratory.

And as great as this song is on the record, it blasts into the stratosphere in concert. If you have not seen BF live, this song it worth the price of admission.

8. “Still” – Ben Folds, Supersunnyspeedgraphic, The LP

Even when he’s not writing about love-gone-cold, BF can write the most incisively sad song about life in general. He’s got this way of turning the most mundane detail of an everyday routine into the most emotionally raw commentary. “Still” is about change, which is something many people abhor, even if they don’t recognize it. At its core, life is about change, and BF calls that out in three heartachingly simple verses. First verse: relationship between lovers. Second verse: relationship between parent and child. Third verse: the internal perspective, his relationship with himself. Four lines each, and each hit the pressure points of why change is one of the very few things we can count on in life.

Musically, he’s got this fantastically grand sense of orchestration and knows exactly when to use it for biggest effect. He knows how to build tension throughout and how to get the most feeling out of the musical release of a tune. This song is such a simple song in terms of structure, but the way it builds complements the feeling of the song so incredibly well.

7. “Not The Same” – Ben Folds, Rockin’ The Suburbs

BF can write an anthem song like nobody. What’s interesting is the content of his anthems. This is a tune about a party he attended at his bandmates house where someone took some acid, climbed a tree, and when they came down (off the trip and the tree), they declared themselves a born-again Christian. At the root of this song, I think BF is criticising situational converts. Not even Christian-specific, just people who are not firmly attached to their own idea of themselves and who will change with the wind, or in this case, a crazy acid trip.

Another song that is a revelation to hear live. He splits the audience into three sections and orchestrates them singing the “aahh-aaaahhhh” part of the song. It is breathtaking to hear thousands of people singing this song and joining in. Again, worth the price of admission.

6. “The Last Polka” – Ben Folds Five, Ben Folds Five

Clearly, Ben Folds has his songwriting niche. Six songs on this list are break-up songs. What makes this tune stand out is its speed. It’s got a pretty intense anger to it. This is easily the most frenetic song in this ten-song line up, and the chaotic feel perfectly fits the lyrical nature of the song. This is a tune about two people actively trying to emotionally wound the other, yet placing blame when things don’t go as they plan. This song sounds like a knock-down drag-out fight between two people too worn out by each other to care anymore. The way he just stomps on the chords of the chorus reflects this feeling perfectly, almost like he’s breaking up with the piano.

5. “Belinda” – Ben Folds & Nick Hornby, Lonely Avenue

This is a weird entry on the list because I would attribute it almost more to Nick Hornby than Ben Folds. The song explores the connection between an artist and their work. If you’re a musician, and you have a massive hit that you wrote from a failed relationship, what happens to your brain and your memories of that relationship as you have to sing that song over and over as the years pass? It is generally well-known that Clapton wrote “Layla” about his love for the then-wife of his friend George Harrison (the Beatle). Can you imagine having to sing that song for 40 years thinking about that woman? Awful. What’s beautiful about the Folds/Hornby song is that not only is it an exploration of the connection between the artist and his hit song, but it’s written partially as the song itself. So you’re hearing a song about an artist and his song and the chorus is the song itself. A genius songwriting device.

4. “Trusted” – Ben Folds, Songs For Silverman

What makes this break-up song different from the rest on this list is the upbeat feel of the music. It’s mainly positive with just a hint of tension. This song chronicles a series of moments when a person realizes their partner is basically crazy. The underpinning issue in the relationship is trust, and the hook so eloquently states a fundamental cornerstone of any functional relationship: “…if you can’t trust, you can’t be trusted.” The partner is neurotic and imaginative, which can be a very dangerous combination. The partner snoops to not only keep tabs on the singer, but also to learn more about him (which starts from a good place, but is such a misguided way to conduct a relationship). As much as I love this whole song, the last verse on its own is 90% of the reason it broke the Top 5 on this list. The whole song has a lot of good build, and it crescendos to this sensational finale that simultaneously illustrates why the singer can’t stay with their partner and communicates the hurt and frustration that can come from trying to make a relationship work while you’re being sabotaged by your partner. BF plays these fantastic triplets that increase the feeling of the pace and so perfectly deliver the urgent yet defeated emotion of the singer. The song increases its tension and build exactly as the singer is feeling little betrayals slowly percolate and grow into a relationship that is too strained under the weight of doubt and dishonesty that it can’t be sustained.

3. “Password” – Ben Folds & Nick Hornby, Lonely Avenue

This song demonstrates the skill Ben Folds (or in this case, Nick Hornby) has in describing the falling out of a relationship in an unusual way. This song is about the facts that this guy knows about his girl, how he’s been listening for as long as they’ve been together and he knows all the right answers. He’d kill on The Newlywed Game. The problem lies in the fact that while all relationships need that sort of factual glue that can help hold things together (it won’t work if you don’t know what the other person likes or dislikes), in the end, every relationship needs Knowing on a deeper level. You’ve got to understand your partner, and the protagonist in this song doesn’t understand his.

What’s also present in this tune is the storyline structure. I feel this is one of the reasons Ben Folds and Nick Hornby found such a connection in each other; they are both natural storytellers. Ben Folds just does it in an unusual way, and much more pointedly than some musicians. This tune reads like a book, where the singer is arguing his side of the relationship, justifying it and saying “Look at how much I know. Of course this works!” It finishes with him realizing that the converse of his original argument is actually the truth. “Look how much I know, but of course that’s not enough and that’s why this doesn’t work.”

2. “Fair” – Ben Folds Five, Whatever And Ever Amen

The first song I can ever remember hearing by BFF. That feedback distortion sound in the opening minute is like an aural time machine, it immediately throws me back to 15 years old and not exactly understanding what this song was about, but being hypnotized by the harmonies of their voices and the rhythmically stunted feel during the verses. I remember love the sing-along-ness of the chorus’ “bah-BAH-bah, bah-BAH-bah!” This was the first time I’d ever heard a bass guitar used so loudly, basically taking the place of where rhythm guitar usually sits in most pop music. This song was my first introduction to BF’s style of playing keys, and I was immediately hooked. He’s got this beautifully complex way of completely splitting his right and left hand parts, and the resulting sound is like there are two sets of keys rather than one cohesive piano part. And just the whole sound of this song is powerful. These three dudes had just drums, bass and keys, and they were able to make sounds I hadn’t ever heard before. They coaxed a fuller sound out of these three instruments than I previously thought possible.

At 15, I had no clue what BF was ever singing about, and this first song was no exception. Little did I know that it was the first of many BF-written tunes that would be about the confusion and ultimately unsatisfying nature of love. Thankfully, I wasn’t lucid enough as a human being to bother internalizing and processing these lyrics, or I might have stopped listening due to the inherently depressing content of 99% of BF’s music. I was just too distracted singing along with those damn fun bah-bah-bahs.

1. “Smoke” – Ben Folds Five, Whatever And Ever Amen

I wrote a big long piece about this song some years back. Here’s what I had to say about it. It’s #4 on that list.


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Shuffle Lessons, Volume 1

I have an iTunes playlist named Top 1000, and it is the 1000 songs with the highest playcounts. Last night, Colleen and I were hanging out and listening to some music, and I had a great idea. I am going to put this playlist on random and write about the first few songs that play. Might be my personal review of the song, or what influenced the song or who it influenced. Not only does this give me a chance to relisten to songs I probably have listened to in awhile, it will help me learn more about the incredible music I own. Let’s get to it.

1. “Levi Johnston’s Blues” – Ben Folds and Nick Hornby, Lonely Avenue

This might be the easiest to unpack on this first set of five. This is a song off of Lonely Avenue, the joint album between Folds and Hornby. It’s written from the perspective of poor Levi Johnston, an Alaskan kid whose life would be completely different had he just worn a condom. When they were just 18 years old, he and Bristol Palin announced (via Sarah Palin’s campaign) that they were pregnant. And getting married. Poor kid. And that’s essentially the message of the song. He clearly had no idea what he got himself involved in and was in over his head. Obviously, this song paints an unpleasant picture of the entire gang involved. Johnston, the Palin women, and the moral value system their campaign was based upon is not looked on in a favorable light. But whatever your political view is, the song does get its message across in an effective way as most Ben Folds songs do. It takes the pretty awful protagonist and makes him relatable, so rather than judging the kid for being a douche bag (which he clearly is), you’re left shaking your head at how much of a kid he was when the whole thing happened. This doesn’t excuse their behavior, but it makes me feel bad for him and Bristol more than anything else. The song has a very pretty pre-chorus too.

2. “The Root” – D’Angelo, Voodoo

Definitely my favorite of this set of five, and the most dense. I listened to this song during my break outside tonight. As the song gets into the penultimate chorus, my head bob got increasingly inaccurate. That’s where the groove lies. The interplay between ?uestlove’s drumming and Charlie Hunter’s bass guitar playing is so laid back. It sounds like they’re playing a game to see who can be behind the beat more often, and they each have their turn. It’s a crazy beat to follow. And the guitar is insane. I mentioned Charlie Hunter; he not only plays bass for this tune, but he is simultaneously laying down the guitar track. The guitar he used was an 8-string guitar/bass combo, so the three low strings are actually bass strings, and the top five are guitar. The way he marries the two sounds so good.

Now focus on D’Angelo. This is how good his whole album is; when I listen to it, I often find myself overlooking his vocals because of how good his instrumentation is. And his vocals are from another world. His voice is saturated with soul. His voice is so strong and stirring that he doesn’t need to stand on the shoulders of the giants of soul, he stands among them. And this song is a perfect example. He sings of the emotional remains of a love that has broken down. This woman has done worked a root on our man D. What I love is the drama he brings to this tune. He speaks about his failed love in terms of life and death and all things in between. “In the name of love and hope, she took my shield and sword, from the pit of the bottom, that knows no floor. Like the rain to the dirt, from the vine to the wine, from the alpha of creation, to the end of all time.” While this might seem a bit sensational, this is how it feels to have love mess you up. Clearly this poor guy is wrecked. But his emotional trauma makes for the funkiest,dirrtiest break-up song ever.

3. “Midnight Cruiser” – Steely Dan, Can’t Buy A Thrill

Not much to say about this one. This is off the album Can’t Buy a Thrill, which is a great album, and that’s the reason this song made it into the Top 1000. While not a terrible song, it is one of the more forgettable tracks from the album, with Stewart Mason of Allmusic.com* calling it “musically faceless.” A great description.

4. “Up With The Birds” – Coldplay, Mylo Xyloto

One of my lesser favorite tunes off of Mylo Xyloto. Musically I feel like this belongs way more with Prospekt’s March than this album. Or maybe this whole album is really just a continuation of that EP. I’d say due to a few key musical elements (specifically Jonny Buckland’s super fast guitar riffs), there is a big connection between that EP and this new album. And while this particular tune has some nice sounds (first half), the second half reminds me so much of Now My Feet Won’t Touch The Ground. Just kind of a bland way to end a pretty cool, large album.

5. “Like A Star” – Corinne Bailey Rae, Corinne Bailey Rae

This was the second song I ever heard by CBR. The acoustic version of Put Your Records On was offered as a free download of the week by iTunes and I remember thinking I had to hear more of this voice that just oozed British soul. Whenever I can hear a woman sing the word “can’t” and it sounds like “caaaan’t,” I very nearly fall in love. So once I heard this tune, I lost my mind. The way this song is set up is so perfect. The feeling of the song sounds like one acoustic guitar following this beautiful chord progression, but then when the drums and strings comes in just before the 1:00 mark, it brings it to this other level of sexiness that really draws the listener in and overwhelms them. I don’t know how CBR spans so many different music genres and blends them together so seamlessly. It’s R&B/soul with the genetic code of jazz. While I’m sure creating a song this fluid is not easy, it’s a credit to her talent that she is able to make it sound so effortless.




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Lonely Avenue

Music review time. I recently acquired the new collaboration between Ben Folds and Nick Hornby, an album called Lonely Avenue. It has a different feel than previous BF releases, but that’s a given as it’s a collab. Still absolutely worth a listen.

I’m assuming most readers know who Ben Folds is. He has been releasing records for the last fifteen years, some under the moniker Ben Folds Five and later on a few solo albums. He has gained a niche among college-aged and young adults with his heinously catchy melodies and heartbreaking lyrics. And he is a whirlwind live performer. If you ever have the chance to see him, TAKE IT. It will be one hell of a show.

Nick Hornby is an artist not generally corollated with writing music. He has written about music his entire career as a writer, but this is his first instance of actually collaborating on a musical album. He is most well known for writing several popular novels, including High Fidelity, About A Boy, and Juliet, Naked, as well as the screenplay for the 2009 movie An Education, which was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Original Screenplay. So the dude’s got chops. I am not in love with every single thing he’s ever done, but on the other hand some of his work is the best written material I’ve ever read. This guy knows how to pierce your heart through writing about normal people with real problems. He can capture dialogue so incredibly well and make you feel heartache you’ve never had.

So how do these two collaborate on an album of music? Hornby writes words, Folds writes lyrics. Sounds weird but potentially awesome. And in my opinion, it turns out to be mostly awesome. The interesting part is that it clearly sounds like a Ben Folds album, but the disconnect happens as he starts to sing. The lyrics are not Ben Folds lyrics, and you can tell. It feels more like a Nick Hornby book than a Ben Folds album. And on some songs that’s amazing, some it doesn’t completely work. I don’t think Hornby has his complete songwriting chops down yet, like on songs like Your Dogs and Picture Window. The songs have great feelings communicated but they don’t feel natural to me. And that’s just me. The majority of the album works great. And I think the biggest reason it’s great is because they chose the perfect pairing of artists. Nobody could’ve pulled this album off but Ben Folds. His music is the ideal vehicle for Horby’s writing. Hornby writes in such a familiar way, with stories about real people, and that’s how Ben Folds has always written his music. It doesn’t feel totally like a Ben Folds album, but it’s as close as you can get. And the off-kilter feeling you get isn’t bad, it’s just not totally Ben Folds.

One of the best examples is the song Password. It uses a really unique songwriting device, spelling of words, and at first listen it seems a little cheesy, but after a few listens and the songs sinks in, holy cow it just rips you apart. You stop listening to the spelling of the words and you feel the pain in the narrator. That is unique and weird songwriting. But it’s awesome. The song changes gradually the more you listen to it.

Final verdict? Great album. Not the best Ben Folds album ever but that’s because it’s not purebred Ben Folds. What it is is a great listen for fans of either artist.


P.S. The album comes with killer liner notes. A quick blurb written by Hornby about each song, and then four different short stories written by him as well. Super great. Cool photos too.

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