The Reese’s Peanut Butter Cup of Collaboration?
LONELY AVENUE, by Ben Folds and Nick Horby
Never mind that Jim DeRogatis and Greg Kot on their radio show Sound Opinions recently gave “Lonely Avenue,” the new collaboration by musician Ben Folds and author Nick Hornby, a “trash it” on their “trash it, burn it or buy it” scale. Jim even called the album “one of the worst albums of the year” and a particular song, “Levi Johnston’s Blues,” as perhaps the worst song of the decade. Whenever critics lean that heavily on hyperbole, I can’t help but shake my head. After all, Jim and Greg are the same guys that praised Lady Gaga not so long ago, so they can’t be taken too seriously.
For those unfamiliar with Folds and Hornby, the former is a successful singer-songwriter who gained popularity in the 90s with his band, Ben Folds Five, and has maintained a prolific output during the last decade (of both songs and wives). Nick Hornby is the English author of “High Fidelity,” “About A Boy,” “A Long Way Down,” and “Juliet, Naked.” Both artists are among my favorites in the medium they most often represent.
So the question is, does the collaboration lead to Reese’s Peanut Butter Cup perfection, or is the outcome more akin to chocolate-covered bacon? Goodness knows that many highly anticipated collaborations end up not working particularly well. Remember bands like “The Firm” and “Bad English?” Sometimes supergroups aren’t so super.
Ben Folds has always been an insightful and clever lyricist in his own right, so I was curious to see what Nick Hornby would bring to the table, and I even wondered if the lyrics would be less vulgar and therefore more kid friendly (they’re not – my son has been given strict instructions NOT to play this album for his friends). Truth be told, Nick Hornby could have spent a little more time offering lyrics that were, well…more lyrical, and on this one point I have to agree with critic Jim DeRogatis. On many of Hornby’s lyrics, he seems to have started with a fine idea, and then slapped down the first words that came to mind with no consideration of meter, hook or rhyme. There’s no rule of course that all lyrics need to fit nicely into a pop song format, but “Lonely Avenue” is, in fact, an album of pop songs, and outside of “Picture Window” and the addictive “Levi Johnston’s Blues,” a listener would be hard pressed to remember and sing along to any of Hornby’s lyrics. Sometimes this is okay, but since I offer this same criticism of a well-schooled musician like Elvis Costello, I can’t let Nick off the hook.
Say it with me: sometimes less is more.
Musically, Ben continues to mix straight-ahead piano arrangements with more electronic embellishments that were also prevalent on his previous release, “Way To Normal.” His vocal layering is back with a vengeance in songs like “Your Dogs,” the Moog synth returns with hypnotic effect on “From Above,” and Ben’s mastery of production is evident throughout.
But to me the most meaningful collaboration on “Lonely Avenue” isn’t that of musician and author, but of musician and arranger. On this album, Folds summoned the services of arranger/conductor Paul Buckmaster, the man responsible for creating so much of the musical landscape on Elton John’s early material. Remember the frantic percussive strings on “Madman Across the Water?” They’re back on “Levi Johnston’s Blues,” and Buckmaster adds a touch of brilliance to four other tracks, even elevating “Picture Window” to a modern day masterpiece.
Yes, I can use hyperbole too, if only to cancel out the comments of overzealous critics.