If I weren’t already considering completely revising my rules for the Year-End Top 10 List, this week’s first entry would have started me thinking about it.
Some people have suggested that instead of having an increasingly complicated series of regulations and criteria, I should just make a list of my favorite CDs in a given year, be they studio, live, best-of, singles, whatever. I’m still rejecting the idea, because I think some structure is a good thing, and I also don’t want to start viewing my list the same way I view the Grammys. Still, if I were to adopt such a freeform policy, I could include Ben Folds Live, without a doubt the CD I’ve flat-out enjoyed the most in 2002 thus far.
Alas, as you can tell by the title, it’s a live album, and hence ineligible under the current rules. Ben Folds Live (a witty play on his old band’s name) documents his recent Ben Folds and a Piano tour across the U.S., which featured (that’s right) just Ben Folds and his Baldwin, not so much playing songs from his four-album catalog as reinventing them.
And here’s why I’m struggling with the fact that as it stands, I’ll have to exclude this puppy in December. Throughout Ben Folds Live, Folds displays ample creativity and ingenuity, coming up with astonishingly inventive ways to compensate for the lack of bass and drums. For much of the material from the Five’s albums, Folds plays all three parts, jamming Robert Sledge’s bass lines with his left hand while keeping Darren Jessee’s drum beats with both feet and a microphone. The solo piano arrangements of these songs took more skill than many artists bring to their original studio material.
What’s more, this album may be the best single piece of evidence in existence that Ben Folds is an absolute genius songwriter and player. We’ll take the former first: Ben Folds Live samples liberally from all three of the Five’s albums (Ben Folds Five, Whatever and Ever Amen and The Unauthorized Biography of Reinhold Messner) and his solo debut from last year, Rockin’ the Suburbs. When stacked all in a row like this, they’re a catalog of some of the best pop songs of the last 10 years. They even stand up nicely to a classic like Elton John’s “Tiny Dancer,” which Folds faithfully covers.
Folds has long been a sterling example of pop done right, and his work stands in stark contrast to the melodically deficient crap that’s been clogging the airwaves for decades. The creeping dominion of hip hop and rap has convinced a dishearteningly vast majority of today’s musicians that you don’t need to actually know how to write a song to make a record. The true test, in my humble opinion, of any pop song’s melodic worth is if it can stand up to a complete undressing – does it work on just one instrument, like an acoustic guitar? Or, say, a piano?
And yeah, mammoth constructions like “Narcolepsy” and “The Last Polka” are loaded with studio trickery in their respective album versions, but they hold up here remarkably well. Opener “One Angry Dwarf and 200 Solemn Faces” remains the joyride it’s always been, and even a relative trifle like “Jane” sounds like a classic here. He enlists the audience to provide a buoyant impression of the horn section in “Army,” complete with both saxophone and trumpet parts. Folds even debuts some tunes here, most notably the lovely “Silver Street” and hilarious b-side “One Down,” which will stick in your head forever.
Songs aside, Ben Folds Live is worth picking up just to hear the man play. Folds has a style that combines the vigorous energy of Jerry Lee Lewis with the technique of Brad Mehldau and the soul of Billy Joel, and the resulting mix is beautiful when needed, and louder than hell when necessary. Tracks like “Zak and Sara” and “The Last Polka” are flawless melodic workouts, and through it all Folds’ voice is in fine form as well.
The jaw-dropper here comes near the end, when Folds tackles his early classic “Philosophy.” The song is a propulsive masterpiece, and this arrangement suffers not at all for lack of accompaniment. Midway through, it sounds like Folds pulls out a third arm to accomplish some of his dazzling solo lines, and he even breaks it down to include a lightning-fast rendition of Dick Dale’s “Misirlou.” If not for the filmed performance of this arrangement on the accompanying DVD, I’d think it was impossible for one man to play it.
I could go on and on, but I’ll spare you. Pieces of this album were recorded at the Vic Theatre in Chicago, back in March (including extemporaneous highlight “Rock This Bitch,” about which I will say nothing) – a show I nearly attended. I bailed because of work, but listening to this disc and watching the performances on the DVD, I’ve decided there’s no way I’m going to miss his repeat performance next month. Seriously, if you’ve ever liked pop music of any stripe, then you will like this. Ben Folds represents the undying beauty of the well-written, well-played pop song better than anyone of his generation, and Ben Folds Live is more fun than you can have for $15 anywhere else.
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Enough about shows I didn’t see.
Last month I caught the Lost Dogs in a little church in Long Grove, IL, on their “True Alternative” tour, and it was a delight. The tour is structured like four shows in one – each of the three Dogs plays a set, and then all three hit the stage for a full Lost Dogs show. All told, it clocked in at more than three hours of acoustic merriment.
The Dogs, as I’ve mentioned before, are Terry Taylor of Daniel Amos, Derri Daugherty of the Choir and Michael Roe of the 77s. Each of these guys is worth seeing on their own, as they’re all good songwriters and singers, and each has a back catalog of dozens of great tunes from their respective bands. Together, though, they play off of each other hilariously – Terry the cranky genius, Mike the disgruntled rock star and Derri the shy wallflower, sending good-natured barbs back and forth like water balloons. And their singing voices blend beautifully as well.
The Lost Dogs have long been on a quest to capture the spiritual roots of American music, blending country, folk and gospel in an earthy stew. That quest was only enhanced by their dear, departed member, the late, great Gene Eugene, who had a voice that could make angels weep. Gene, of unearthly awesome band Adam Again, made four superb albums with the Dogs, and arguably the finest of those is The Green Room Serenade, Part One, a 70-minute tour de force anchored by Eugene’s best contributions.
The band never got around to making Part Two, but the latest tour is accompanied by a new live CD called The Green Room Serenade, Part Tour, which documents a full band show from 1996. And if nothing else, the album is worth getting just for one more visit with the amazing Gene Eugene. His rendition of “The Last Temptation of Angus Shane” will bring tears, and if that doesn’t, then hearing him sing “Jimmy” undoubtedly will. Time all but stops for those two minutes.
The other three Dogs shine here as well. Part Tour really emphasizes the band’s diversity, sliding effortlessly from the gospel-folk of “Breathe Deep” to the rollicking bluegrass of “Bad Indigestion” to the perfect pop of “No Ship Coming In.” Three covers finish the album off: Eugene takes lead on Leonard Cohen’s “If It Be Your Will,” and the three remaining Dogs harmonize wonderfully on new studio versions of the Beach Boys’ “With Me Tonight” and Bob Dylan’s “Lord, Protect My Child.”
For a side project that was only meant as a lark, the Lost Dogs have amassed quite the catalog of great songs. As a sampler of that catalog, Part Tour is a great place to start if you’ve never heard of them. The trio has just completed a new album, which the record label is really hoping they don’t call Nazarene Crying Towel, and the songs they played from it at the Long Grove show were swell, if more gospel-oriented than they’ve been in the past.
Once you get into the Dogs, you’re going to want to check out everything from the members’ “real” bands as well. I especially recommend the Choir, one of the best bands to ever walk the earth. And I guarantee you, when Part Tour was recorded in 1996, Choir singer Derri Daugherty was already hard at work on his solo album, which he still hasn’t finished.
He has, however, released a five-song sampler of that upcoming release, descriptively titled A Few Unfinished Songs. It’s a testament to how much I love Derri that I paid $12 for these 14 minutes of music, and I feel like I got a deal. Daugherty sings like no one else, and he plays guitar like he’s sculpting magic in the air. These songs are all short and sweet, and especially wonderful are opener “All the World to Me” and “Logical Conclusion,” one of the best pop songs of the year. Don’t give up, Derri – a few more songs like these and you’ve got one marvelous album on your hands.
The Green Room Serenade, Part Tour and A Few Unfinished Songs are exclusive releases from Lo-Fidelity Records, which I think is basically just Jeffrey K. and his wife in their apartment. If you support him, he’ll be able to finance more releases like this, so go to www.lo-fidelity.com and buy, buy, buy. And then go to www.danielamos.com, www.thechoir.net, www.77s.com and www.thelostdogs.com and buy, buy, buy some more. It’s all good.
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Next time, some submissions from folks I’ve never met.
See you in line Tuesday morning.