REVIEW: Ben Folds and Nick Hornby – “Lonely Avenue

Ben Folds

I’m frequently conflicted about enjoying Ben Folds’ music.  He’s such a stunning songwriter, I know each time he brings out a new album there’s going to be something I love, but I’m also going to be embarrassed by his wise-ass college attitude (which, coming from a guy in his forties is a bit like your father trying to make you think he’s still “hip” . . . or anything Bowling For Soup tries to make look like today’s kids find amusing.)

And though I loved the film “High Fidelity,” I’ve never quite bought into the idea that Nick Hornby is this neo-literature God my generation should worship at the altar of. He, like Folds, can be capable of providing insight in small doses. But as Lonely Avenue, their album of collaborations (Hornby writes the words, Folds turns them into musical soundscapes) plays out, the idea of less is more becomes very appealing. Folds may well be able to sing the phonebook and make it sound aurally appealing, but as much as he twists Hornby’s bloated prose, the strikeout rate is incredibly high.

“Levi Johnson’s Blues” takes an interesting premise and runs it into the ground with incessant repetitions of the chorus: “I’m a fucking redneck, I live to hang out with the boys, play some hockey, do some fishing and kill some moose. I like to shoot the shit and do some chilling I guess; you try to fuck with me and I’ll kick your ass.” The frenetic “Doc Pomus” overwhelms with it’s overtly busy background arrangement, speedy dueling piano and snare wearing the listener out so much it’s bound to induce motion sickness. And “Password” wears out its welcome for more than five minutes as we hear a creepy protagonist singing about how much he knows about the woman he loves, because he’s spied on her and read her emails. “You went to school in Chicago. Your mom’s maiden name is Dupree. Your favorite actor is DiNiro. Your birthday is 03-08-83.” And that’s just the start of the song … it gets way more creepily disturbing as it goes along.

Thank God we live in a world where we can avoid the clutter and focus in on the songs which deserve a listen. “Picture Window” really stands out, as almost a companion piece to Ben’s own “Brick.” A young mother spends New Year’s eve in a hospital as her son lays dying. “You know what hope is? Hope is a bastard! Hope is a liar, a cheat and a tease. Hope comes near you, kick its backside; got no place in days like these.” It’s wrenching to hear Hornby’s words put to a rising tide of piano and strings as Ben lets his voice do all the heavy lifting. It’s songs like this which give me hope that if he lays off the novelty “humor” every once in a while he might produce albums with less filler.

Even the kitsch can be alright in smaller doses. Another standout on the album (in fact its closing salvo) is “Belinda,” an ode to an aging one hit wonder doomed to continue singing a song about a woman he heartlessly dumped years ago for an airline stewardess. He wishes he didn’t have to sing the song every night, because it reminds him of all his failures. Of course he can’t resist putting a minute of blank space at the end, with a hidden track which robs the song of all its sentiment. Go figure.

I guess the album makes sense in that Folds and Hornby seem to be lyrical kindred spirits. They both love lyrical bloat and humor which doesn’t always work, while deep down they have a sentimental side and a penchant for telling other people’s stories in an affecting manner. Taken in as an album-length experiment in music-meets-literature, the album’s successful enough to have more lasting an impact than Folds’ other experiments (including Fear of Pop and his EP series). But a solid album-length listen it does not make.

Thank God, I suppose, for single-serving downloads.

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