Goodbyes Are Sad
Glenn McDonald and Ben Folds Wrap Things Up

Missing the War

We say goodbye to Glenn McDonald and his War Against Silence this week, and it’s an end that I meet with mixed emotions.

I should preface this by saying that music critics often make me passionately angry, and very few have made me quite as passionately angry as Glenn McDonald has over the years. Our perspectives differ sharply, and bands and albums I have loved with all my heart have seen a callous (but not unconsidered) trampling under his boot. Likewise, records I found unbearable (like Tori Amos’ unconscionably boring Scarlet’s Walk), he has praised, eloquently and convincingly.

I have often maintained that a music critic is no good to you unless you agree with him, and I still believe that if you love something deeply, no amount of criticism will convince you that it’s worthless. I read Glenn McDonald despite the fact he dismisses records I adore and extols records I despise simply because his writing is astonishingly good. When he wants to, Glenn can make you question your own loves and hates just by beautifully expressing his own perspective. It’s a skill I wish I could develop.

As an example, Glenn loves Roxette, the Norwegian pop band that brought us hits like “The Look” and “Listen to Your Heart.” He’s unapologetic in his embrace of a silly pop band most “serious” critics have written off, and the best thing is, he loves them for the same qualities for which others shun them. I’ve always kind of liked Roxette, but I don’t place them as high in the pop pantheon as Glenn does. Still, when reading his reviews, I’ve found myself re-evaluating the fizzy pop albums of theirs I own, and wishing I liked them as much as he does.

Even in cases where I am clearly right and he is clearly wrong, such as our respective assessments of Marillion’s Marbles, Glenn has never failed to make me think and re-assess. The proof of Glenn’s Marillion fandom is all in his archive – I have never seen more evidence of emotional attachment in any other reviews of the band’s music I’ve read. He loved Marillion, and then, with the release of Anoraknophobia, he didn’t. His criticism of the new album centers on the lyrics, which he says destroy the whole project. I disagree completely, but nearly every time I have played Marbles since, I have paid more attention to those lyrics, and sometimes I can understand his position. (And I’m kidding about the clearly right and clearly wrong thing.)

I guess what I’m trying to say, in words far less elegant than those the man himself would use, is that Glenn McDonald was born to write about music. So it’s been somewhat disheartening to me to read his later work, as it concerned his personal life more and more. I say somewhat because the writing was still as great as it has ever been, and he’s obviously in love and he wants to sing about it. I can’t say it was a surprise, though, when Glenn announced that he was bringing The War Against Silence to a close. And he did, this week, with a typically heartfelt and lovingly crafted column.

Chances are very good that for at least the next three consecutive Thursday mornings, I will click over to Glenn’s website, just out of habit. The War Against Silence provided me with a weekly writing lesson, a dose of musical passion, and a perspective I’ve never found elsewhere. I wish him well, and I understand (if not applaud) his decision to acknowledge that his life has led him away from music criticism, but the internet will be a less insightful place without him. So thanks, Glenn, and good luck in all you do.

* * * * *

Third Time’s A…

There was some doubt earlier this year that Ben Folds’ EP project would ever see completion.

You may remember that last year, Folds began self-releasing five-song mini-albums, as an experiment to see if online distribution could work for him. While working on his still-untitled and still-uncompleted new album, Folds also tossed off Speed Graphic and Sunny 16, two little samplers in cardboard sleeves that were only available through his website. And when I say tossed off, I mean carefully and lavishly produced – these EPs were the equal of his “real” albums in all but length.

But the third in the projected series of three, Super D, failed to materialize. There were rumors that Folds had announced from the stage that the third EP would never see the light of day, which led to further rumors that Folds was simply running out of songs for the album. But lo and behold, here it is, more than a year after the project’s inception: Super D can now sit comfortably next to its brothers. Or go out drinking and smashing up bars with them, which is probably more likely, given their temperaments.

The question, of course, is whether Super D is worth the wait. In a word?

Aw, hell, yeah, it is.

I don’t know what the real album will sound like, but anyone expecting a bunch of half-assed castoffs from Super D is in for a groovy shock. In many ways, this is my favorite of the three EPs, mainly because it ably demonstrates in 18 superb minutes why Ben Folds is one of the finest pop musicians currently working. Folds played all the instruments on this record (except for strings and horns), but you’d never know it – most of this EP sounds like a live band on a great night.

It crashes open with my current vote for coolest thing in the whole wide world ever: a piano trio cover of the Darkness’ “Get Your Hands Off My Woman,” complete with high-pitched vocalizing and an insanely fast solo section. Folds celebrates the inherent cheese of the tune with his smartass delivery, and his version is a hundred times more fun. Every year I find a song to say this about, and this year it’s this one: you will not have more fun listening to music in 2004 than you will jamming with this song.

Folds downshifts for “Kalamazoo,” a textured epic with a straining, sad melody, but he kicks it back up for “Adelaide,” which may as well be prog-disco, only much cooler than that appellation makes it sound. Folds’ arrangement skills are on fire here, especially when you consider that, again, he’s playing all the instruments. And then comes “Rent a Cop,” a sarcastic boogie about a nasty mall security guard, that shimmies and shakes with John Mark Painter’s killer horn arrangement.

The EP concludes with a brief live cover of Ray Charles’ “Them That Got,” a sweet tribute to the great man we lost earlier this year. It’s touching, and it ends this series on just the right note. As much as I like these EPs, I have to say that had Folds presented them as one 15-song collection, he’d have the album of the year on his hands. Think about it – an album with graceful numbers like “Give Judy My Notice” and “Wandering,” sneering tunes like “All You Can Eat” and “Rent a Cop,” and redefining covers of songs by the Cure and the Divine Comedy, all capped off with this great take on “Them That Got.”

If you have a CD burner or an iPod, you can combine the EPs yourself, and I recommend that approach. These little morsels are not enough to sustain you, but put together, they make one damn satisfying meal. The EP project is, at least musically, a smashing success. Let’s hope the eventual “real” album is as varied, energetic and flat-out excellent as these three stunners.

* * * * *

All Apologies

I know I promised (cryptically) a column on brotherly love this week, and I meant to write it, but it turned into something more complex than I had anticipated. I just didn’t have the time. I’m nursing a nasty heartbreak and I have to go north for another funeral this weekend, too, so I’m just not in a writing mood. As a sneak peek, I can tell you it deals with the Robinsons and the Finns. And the week after, there’s Bjork’s all-vocals album Medulla to discuss. Until I return, be well, and take care of each other.

See you in line Tuesday morning.