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Pop roundup

I’ve been doing a lot of copying lately, and that means that iTunes is working overtime. So in the Nobrow spirit, I present some Listening Lately:

Ben Folds — Songs for Silverman

My Ben Folds fandom goes back to the heady days of Ben Folds Five, when every song was a precious Beatles-derived gem, and the last two solo albums have not disappointed. As a rule, I buy his albums, even the EPs and occasional single for download off of the iTunes Music Store, because I am a sucker for this guy’s piano-driven grooves tinged with jazz and show-tune harmonies. My first taste of BFF came late one night on Conan, oh probably about 1996 or so. I had never heard rock arrangements for piano, bass, and drums sound like that, and as I missed the O’Brian’s introduction I immediately went into an internet-driven tailspin trying to find out who they were (less easy those days).

Like the title track from his previous offering, Rockin’ the Suburbs (an excellent piece of work), there are the obligatory one or two tracks delivered with tongue firmly inserted in cheek—in SfS it’s Jesusland, which works quite well as a humor track, and very well if you dig his politics. Unfortunately, also like RtS, there are some notable clunkers. Folds has this unfortunate tendency to occasionally get overly earnest and sentimental, and more-than-a-modicum too personal. On RtS, it was The Luckiest, a sugary ballad clearly written for his then new wife/partner which quickly got deleted from my Ben Folds playlist. In the same vein of ill-advised and way-too-specifically un-metaphored songwriting, this album’s heart-on-sleeve homage to his daughter, Gracie, (I kid you not … if these depictions of life’s rite-of-passages continue in order, I expect the next album to treat us us to an emotional musical journey exploring the death of a parent) is as awful as you’d think, providing us with that stomach-turning “more information about your personal life than I wanted, thank you” moment. Another bad compositional decision is Late, an unsubtle tribute to a songwriter I can only assume is Elliott Smith (worthy of tribute if it is a paean to Smith, yes, but I think perhaps with some more thought Folds might have done better than “The songs you wrote, got me through a lot, just wanna tell you that”). All these tracks are arguments against a songwriter having too much artistic control—you get the impression that had the label had any say, they would have 86′d these suckers at the earliest opportunity.

SfS also provides object lessons in pop production, in two instances: one being the unfortunate bonus “strings” version of Landed (an otherwise attractive, cleverly-written and well-produced tune) … the other is the completely re-produced cut of the previously-released Give Judy My Notice. What was a simple and very effective vocal/piano arrangement on last year’s Speed Graphic EP, was unfortunately re-worked for SfS into a misguided and overly-produced mess of slide guitar and choral overdubs. With the magic of iTunes, one can A/B these versions side by side, and learn how not to produce a perfectly good song.

But these are the exceptions. The new album as a whole is excellent, providing more of the same rock- piano fireworks, catchy tunes, and cheeky lyrics. Sentimental Guy, for one, is a terrific cut, providing some relief from the barn-burning rock tracks by somehow achieving a very groovy retro 70′s TV sitcom theme sound in the production. And when on the mark (and less on-the-nose than “I love my wife/daughter”) his lyrics are clever and funny—the best penned tracks probably being Landed, and Trusted, which provides what is my favorite Folds lyric from the album:

She’s pulled all the blankets over
Curled in a ball
Like she’s hiding from me and
that’s when I know
She’s gonna be pissed when she wakes up
For terrible things I did to her in her dreams

Alison Krauss and Union Station — Lonely Runs Both Ways

I missed the release of Krauss’s new album last XMas season. I think perhaps I was writing 2 pieces or something. And maybe, to be completely honest, I was likely a little turned off by the incessant promotion of the album during WNYC‘s Winter fund drive. The CDs WNYC (a monster force for excellence on the dial, to be sure) tends to push while hawking memberships are generally of the white-bread, Norah-Jones, can’t-be-subjected-to-anything-even-remotely-threatening variety, and even though I’m sure I fall somewhere in that demographic, I tend to resist it. So I ended up purchasing it late, which saddens me, because that was about 6 months I could have been enjoying this CD. Alison Krauss, she of the achingly beautiful voice, could be singing the yellow pages and I’d listen, it matters not that it’s bluegrass, or country, or whatever the powers-that-be wish to label her seering twang (and every album does appear to actually be a different “genre”. The last one, New Favorite, came to me marked as “Bluegrass” … this one was tagged as “Country”). And I have been listening, first hearing her on her frequent appearances years ago on Garrison Keillor’s radio show (she’s never booked there anymore, much too big a deal these days).

Much like New Favorite, LRBW alternates back and forth (for the most part) between Krauss’s insanely-beautiful ballads and Dan Tyminski’s (he of the Constant Sorrow) and Jerry Douglas’s masterful banjo and steel-guitar-pickin’ fire-starters. Leaving aside the fact that (let’s be honest), we’re all buying this album to slobber over Krauss’s jeweled throat, Union Station’s bluegrass stuff is just fantastic. The band is astonishingly good, and the arrangements are as quality as they get. The production on the CD (like many Rounder Records CDs, I believe, produced by Krauss herself) is extraordinary as well, every track sounds better than the last one. So to get tossed back and forth between Krauss’s magical crooning and Union Station’s astonishing technique is a wonderful ride. Every track works. But if I had to pick one, the gem of LRBW is the final track, Krauss’s heartbreaking cover of A Living Prayer. Just try not hitting “repeat”.

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