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.
75.5% / C+