Speaking as a music collector, the ampersand is a tricky thing.
At the best of times, it signifies an expansion of one’s musical world. At the worst, it’s a way of bringing an unwanted intruder into what was, until then, an intimate experience. You’re doing just fine with John Lennon, and then all of a sudden, it’s John Lennon & Yoko Ono. But, on the flipside, you’ve spent enough time with Wilco to be bored by them, and then along comes Wilco & Billy Bragg. And here’s somebody new to catch up with, and obsess over.
It’s unpredictable, but then, so is collaboration. The ampersand indicates an artist’s willingness to bring new people into the fold, and share ideas. I think that’s a marvelous concept, regardless of the outcome. Music should be all about melding different perspectives, opening new doors. Even if that particular melding never happens again, it’s always interesting to me to hear what different artists can do together. It makes me want to sing “We Are the World.”
The thing is, most of these collaborations are one-offs, your only chance to hear what the meeting of two minds can produce. If they don’t catch lightning in a bottle, there’s usually no opportunity to do it again. That’s why these things are so hard to predict. So many other factors can creep in and ruin what should be a successful one-time partnership. Not only do the artists usually have one try at getting it right, you as a music fan usually have only one shot at hearing what may be a dream-come-true moment.
For months, my most anticipated ampersand project has been Lonely Avenue, by Ben Folds & Nick Hornby. There’s a number of reasons for this. Piano man Folds has long been one of my favorite songwriters, but his last album, the guffawing Way to Normal, left me cold. Folds used to be one of the best storytellers in popular music, filling his tunes with fascinating characters. (A few examples: Zak and Sara, Fred Jones, Alice Childress, even the nameless prizefighter in “Boxing.”) But his last two records have found him turning inward, writing sad songs and little joking ditties about things that really happened to him. And his work has suffered, somehow.
Novelist Nick Hornby, as I’m sure most of you know, is one of the best storytellers working today. He’s the author of High Fidelity, and About a Boy, and How to be Good, and A Long Way Down, and the new Juliet, Naked. His work is completely free of pretension, his characters talk like real people, and his stories are full of sweet and sad details that make you laugh while they rip your heart out. If there’s any prose author who would be a perfect match for Ben Folds, it’s Hornby, and on Lonely Avenue, they joined forces. Hornby wrote his first-ever song lyrics, and Folds composed the music for them.
The result is like a musical short story collection. There’s no reason, beyond their shared authorship, for these 11 songs to be on the same record. They veer wildly from one style to another, from 1970s Elvis Costello stomping to massively orchestrated balladry to white-boy blues to Devo-esque synth frippery. But the obvious mutual respect shines through here, and ties this all together. It’s obvious Folds and Hornby have sparked off each other, each leading the other to new heights, and that shared energy makes this album a unified work.
What’s surprising (although maybe it shouldn’t be) is how often Hornby’s lyrics sound like Ben Folds in his prime. Every song spins a tale, mostly through perceptive details. The divorced parents in “Claire’s Ninth” arrive in separate cars for their daughter’s birthday party, and pay for the meal with separate credit cards “as if they’ve never met.” In “Picture Window,” a mother checks her ailing son into the hospital on New Year’s Eve 2008, watches the fireworks, and refuses to hope: “Another mum gives her some sparkling wine, she nearly gives into the moment, but he’ll still be sick in 2009…”
For the most part here, Folds has stepped up with some wonderful tunes. His biggest mistake – and he makes it more than once – is hanging back too far, out of respect for Hornby’s words. The melody of “Practical Amanda” is so slight as to be almost nonexistent, and even comparative winners like “From Above” could have used more hooks, more sweep. But when he gets it right, as he does on most of the tracks here, Folds sounds back on form. This is the songwriter I fell in love with in the late ‘90s.
Much of Lonely Avenue is about the art of creation. Brief opener “A Working Day” runs through the emotional rise and fall of pulling art out of the air – it travels from “I’m a genius” to “everything I write is shit” in 1:51. (I got a special charge out of this line: “Some guy on the net thinks I suck, and he should know, he’s got his own blog…”) “Doc Pomus” pictures the wheelchair-bound songwriter in his cranky last days at a nursing home, listening to his old hits: “He never could be one of those happy cripples, the kind that smile and tell you life’s OK, he was mad as hell, frightened and bitter, he found a way to make his isolation pay…” (The album is named after Alex Halberstadt’s Pomus biography, and it’s clear that Hornby’s foray into lyrics has led to a kinship of sorts.)
There are missteps here. “Levi Johnston’s Blues” is possibly the worst of them, a drippy funk number that imagines what Bristol Palin’s baby daddy must have gone through during the campaign. The chorus is taken right from Johnston’s infamous Facebook profile (“I’m a fuckin’ redneck…”), and ceases to be funny after one repetition. “Password” is also an interesting idea, that of believing you know someone because you know their internet passwords, but it drags on too long. All is forgiven, though, when you hear a stunner like “Saskia Hamilton,” an ‘80s-style synth romp about falling for someone just because of her name. “She’s got more assonance than she knows what to do with, she’s got two sibilants, no bilabial plosives…” The English nerds in the audience are punching the air right now.
If there is a classic here, though, it’s the closing song, “Belinda.” This tune is a marvel of lyrical and melodic construction. It’s about an aging singer who, every night, must perform his one hit, called (you guessed it) “Belinda.” It was written for a woman he still loves, for a relationship that ended when he cheated on her with a stewardess he met on a plane. And so every night, he relives the memory. He can’t stop singing the song, because without it, “a one-hit wonder with no hits is what he is.”
Now here’s the incredible part. We never actually hear what this guy’s song “Belinda” sounds like. The closest hint we get is in the second line of the first verse (“Belinda, I love you, don’t leave me, I need you”). The chorus we hear is the music from his hit, but the lyrics are the dialogue running through the singer’s mind as he sings it. He relives his weak justifications for cheating (“She gave me complimentary champagne”) in the place of whatever lyric his audience is singing along with.
In the second verse, he laments that “no one ever wants to hear the song he wrote for Cindy,” and yet that song has the same words and melody as “Belinda,” pointing out the pattern in this sad man’s life. The final verse is just beautiful: “So every night about this time, he feels the old self-loathing, while the old folks in the audience sing along, and he smiles and waves the mike at them so they can do the chorus, he’s not there, he’s somewhere else, he’s with Belinda in the days before he made it all go wrong…” Folds sets all this to a classic pop melody, one that might have even been a hit once upon a time, and Paul Buckmaster gives it an astonishingly good string and horn arrangement.
“Belinda” is the kind of thing Ben Folds used to do. He used to spin stories like this all the time. My fervent hope is that this collaboration with Hornby has recharged that battery, because I miss that side of his work. Ideally, however, Lonely Avenue will be merely the first of many joint ventures from Folds and Hornby. It’s so good so often that it would be a shame to stop here. Lonely Avenue is a smashing success, the best Ben Folds album in years, and a terrific first foray into lyrics for Nick Hornby. It’s exactly what an ampersand project should be.
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And here’s another. Now, really, I don’t have to tell you that Wake Up, a collaborative effort by John Legend and the Roots, is great, do I? Let’s recap here. John Legend. The Roots. Doing old soul covers. My only job here is to tell you just how great it is. So let me put it this way: on a scale of one to ten, it’s pretty fucking great.
This is one of those pairings that just makes sense when you hear it. Legend has a deep love for old soul music – Curtis Mayfield, Teddy Pendergrass, Otis Redding, Marvin Gaye – and even though his albums often drift into adult-contemporary pop, his voice is one of those old-school wonders. It’s smooth without needing to be acrobatic, and gritty without becoming unappealing. The Roots, of course, are one of the finest, funkiest, most supple bands on the planet, and even if you don’t like hip-hop (which I usually don’t), you have to respect their musicality. They are tight and deep and just plain awesome.
I can think of no better band to accompany Legend on this trip through soul’s back pages. There are no familiar hits reprised on Wake Up. Rather, Legend and the Roots unearthed some true gems and breathed new life into them. The record opens with the slamming “Hard Times,” written by Mayfield and originally performed by Baby Huey. The energy here is just extraordinary, the staccato horns hitting like bullets. It’s nothing, however, when compared with the explosive take on Eugene McDaniels’ “Compared to What.” Legend just knocks this out of the park. When he hits the dirty high note in the chorus (“Tryin’ to keep it real”), it’s amazing.
These updates of old soul numbers make room for some new hip-hop verses, courtesy of the Roots’ own Black Thought, and guests Common, CL Smooth and Malik Yusef. They fit in well, but I found myself wanting to hear Legend again each time they started up. The album’s more sedate second half is all singing, and includes a powerful run through Gaye’s spiritual “Wholly Holy” and a stunning little version of the Nina Simone great “I Wish I Knew How it Would Feel to Be Free.” (It also contains the one original song, a sleeper called “Shine.” You can skip it.)
The album’s highlight, for me anyway, is the absolutely gob-smacking 12-minute treatment of Bill Withers’ “I Can’t Write Left-Handed.” The story of a soldier with a bullet in his shoulder, this song builds and builds over one repeated, incredible piano-bass lick. When guitarist Captain Kirk Douglas steps in with an extended, incendiary solo, the song hits new heights. This is just extraordinary stuff.
Should Legend and the Roots do this again? I think so, but more for Legend’s sake than anything. The Roots are the Roots, but they elevated Legend’s game immeasurably on this record. He shines as one of the best soul singers we have right now, and I wouldn’t mind hearing more from this team-up, if it brings this kind of performance out of him. Wake Up is a wonderful record, the fruit of an inspired collaboration, and I hope there’s more in the wings.
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One last ampersand before we call it a week.
Some time ago, I gave I’m Having Fun Now, the debut from Jenny & Johnny, a dismissive first-listen review on my blog. In the weeks since, however, I’ve spun this thing a few more times, and now I’m ready to declare it a big ball of fun. Jenny, of course, is Jenny Lewis, of Rilo Kiley fame, and Johnny is her significant other, songwriter Jonathan Rice. And this is the sound of the two of them having a blast in the studio.
I never quite understood Rilo Kiley’s acclaim, although Under the Blacklight made me smile. But I like Lewis on her own. She has one of those powerful, classic voices that works well singing just about anything. On I’m Having Fun Now, she and Rice spin out one simple, catchy ditty after another, their voices intertwining atop sloppy guitars, thumping bass, pounding drums and little else. They take turns playing different instruments – Lewis kicks it on the drums three times – and their easy familiarity lends this record a ramshackle charm.
Good songs? Glad you asked. “Big Wave” is my favorite, a clomping mass of melody with a distinctive synth line. Opener “Scissor Runner” is groovy, “Animal” makes me dance, and “New Yorker Cartoon” brings Rice to the fore for a man-out-of-place lament. There are lesser lights, like too-simple “My Pet Snakes,” but for the most part, these ditties do their jobs well. And closer “Committed” doesn’t feel like a conclusion so much as just the 11th song. When the record ends, it’s kind of a surprise.
Don’t expect anything that will stick with you, or will change your life. I’m Having Fun Now gives you exactly what the title promises. It’s what I usually expect from an ampersand project: a lighthearted side effort, a detour, an enjoyable little pitstop. And there’s nothing wrong with that at all.
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All right, before we close this thing out, it’s time for the Third Quarter Report.
This one was very tough. The last three months have brought us some amazing albums (including a couple I mentioned this week), and slotting them into place this time was nearly an impossible task. I don’t know what the next three months will bring – the only thing I’m excited beyond words for is the new Sufjan Stevens, out October 12 – but I would bet most of the albums listed below will be in my final list in December. If I were forced to release that list-in-progress right now, though, this is what it would look like:
10. Yeasayer, Odd Blood
9. Sufjan Stevens, All Delighted People
8. Janelle Monae, The ArchAndroid
7. Linkin Park, A Thousand Suns
6. Ben Folds & Nick Hornby, Lonely Avenue
5. The Lost Dogs, Old Angel
4. Joanna Newsom, Have One on Me
3. The Choir, Burning Like the Midnight Sun
2. Mumford and Sons, Sigh No More
1. Arcade Fire, The Suburbs.
Joanna has relinquished her crown, but could easily regain it. The Choir and Arcade Fire albums really are that good, though, and Mumford and Sons is my favorite new band of the year. And yes, Linkin Park. I promise you, it’s great. Listen to it. Honorable mentions this time go to Beach House, Hanson, Rufus Wainwright, Devo, Sia and the Dead Weather. (John Legend & the Roots are ineligible under my rules, but they’d get one too, if I could.)
All right, that’ll do for this time. Next week, we dive into October with Guster and Fran Healy, as well as a look at that comprehensive John Lennon box set. Leave a comment on my blog at tm3am.blogspot.com. Follow my infrequent twitterings at www.twitter.com/tm3am.
See you in line Tuesday morning.