Review: Lonely Avenue (Ben Folds & Nick Hornby)

Lonely Avenue: Lyrics by Nick Hornby, Music by Ben Folds.

These are certainly the ideal days for supergroups. You’ve got everything from the tongue-in-cheek powerpop quartet Tinted Windows, to the rich folk experiment Monsters of Folk, to the horrendous and laughable disaster known as Chickenfoot.

Though we’re only discussing the alliance of two individuals here, Lonely Avenue‘s founders undeniably share a notable list of supergroup qualities.

For starters, Ben Folds really proves himself here as a knowledgeable and understanding musician and songcrafter, as well as an experienced arranger. No track is left void of a stunning string ornamentation, or a sirening synth embellishment, or a melancholy horn expression. Basically, Folds acts like a full orchestra and really illustrates Nick Hornby’s generally emotive and compelling text.

“Claire’s Ninth” is a prominent example of Folds’s ability to translate such precise poetry into engaging musicology. The meticulous pacing of the verses sell the aching sentiment instantaneously. Folds then sneaks in little bursts of Brian Wilson-tinged harmony bits, leading up to the New-York-City-lights-at-night-sized eruption of spellbinding vocal unity. Ben all the more takes on a strong narrative role in his convincing caroling of the expressive second verse (“What’s the point of this? / What’s wrong with two birthdays? / It’s cool at school / Her friends, they all have two birthdays / Oh geez, he just asked the waitress out on a date on her birthday”).

Early-album track “Picture Window” additionally brings Hornby’s poignant verses to life with its infinitely appropriate melody, carrying the bold charge, “You know what hope is? / Hope is a bastard / Hope is a liar / A cheat and a tease.” It’s a modern “Tiny Dancer” with plenty of Ben Folds classicity to bridge any unnatural gaps.

Hornby, on the other hand, actually is largely hit-or-miss organizationally as the lyrical raconteur of the record. On some of the tunes, the designation of “verse” and “chorus” and “bridge” is sufficiently distinct; yet, on others, the compositional contrast is weakened and unfocused by the inorganic flow of the lyrical information. For reference; the chorus lyrics of “From Above” are nearly equal in length to their surrounding verse lines, unintentionally bypassing the opportunity for natural progression and anticipated variation. He’s a great author, yes. But he is still an obvious novice when it comes to song structure.

Hornby also comes across as a blatant self-obsessor in a few of the more pretentiously philosophical tunes (“The Christians on the radio / They act like you’re scum / Self-righteous condescending bastards / Each and every one,” he sneers in “Your Dogs”), and attempts to create a false sense of superiority/sophistication in the introductory track, “A Working Day” (“Some guy on the net thinks I suck / And he should know / He’s got his own blog,” he sarcastically muses).

Ultimately, Lonely Avenue is worth hearing once, maybe twice. It’s skillfully produced for longevity, but its content is largely oversold. Even some the better melodies are based around hackneyed chord progressions, and production alone can’t cure these ailments.

Still; noteworthy.

75.5% / C+

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Review: Easy Wonderful (Guster)

What a relief it is to hear the youthful exuberance of the forgotten sons of the 00’s burst through the speakers on Easy Wonderful‘s introductory track “Architects and Engineers.”

It’s not like we’ve come to expect any different from the indie-pop pioneers, collectively known as Guster. Still, sometimes, bands that take their sweet time getting around to their next record lose either energy or creativity (or both).

Lyrically, the fellows are in top form— “These moments could never last, like a sad old man with his photographs” recounts lead vocalist Ryan Miller. Musically, song structures and chord progressions are as unique and stimulating as ever. “Bad Bad World” really takes on an old Guster vibe, and channels strong songcrafting innovation, especially in the chorus.

They even mingle a bit with the Beatles classic “All You Need is Love” on first official single “Do You Love Me?,” but it’s still distinctly Guster enough with its tickling trinkets of piano and trademark bridge melody crooning.

The striking arrangement of “This is How it Feels to Have a Broken Heart” is one of the grand highlights of the record, pushing a dance-y percussive groove and a brilliantly colourful array of instruments (harmonica, banjo, synth, strings, etc.), streaming the whole creation into a smooth anthem of dark sonic imagery and poignant lyrical messages.

Through all of the noteworthy accomplishments for the band that this record brings, there is one major flaw with Easy Wonderful that needs to be addressed. The majority of these well-crafted tunes are nearly spoiled by the shockingly unnecessary use of pitch correction. Since when does Ryan Miller need assistance with his covetable vocal range and far beyond acceptable ability to stay on pitch? Never, that‘s when. The most noticeable instance of this pointless aid is in late-album track “That’s No Way to Get to Heaven,” as the obviously tainted vocal track is stretched in both sharp and flat directions, at the whim of the melodyne oppressor.

Granted, “Stay With Me Jesus” appears to be free of such ruination, which is moderately comforting. Had the rest of the tracks been as pure and organic, perhaps Easy Wonderful would have been remembered as one of the best of 2010, and beyond.