Giving In to Gimmicky Goodness
Novel Works From Ben Folds and British Sea Power

As a writer, I love a good gimmick.

You have no idea how much I struggle, staring at a blank page, trying desperately to find something to say about 10 or 12 good songs on a shiny plastic disc. There are only so many ways to praise your average good-to-great album, and only slightly more ways to pan your average mediocre-to-bad album. But give me an in – a good story, an interesting hook to hang a review on – and I’m a happy man. Sufjan Stevens is making an album for each of the 50 states? Fantastic. My first three paragraphs are already written.

Ah, but here’s the rub: as a music fan, I couldn’t care less about the gimmicks. All I need to be happy is that aforementioned 10 or 12 good songs on a shiny plastic disc. Your gimmick might get me to buy your record, but without musical substance, that’s all it is – an empty sales tactic. I don’t have time for those.

Ideally, I’m looking for the best of both worlds. The gimmicks I’m happiest with end up etched into the DNA of the recordings themselves. I love it when artists come up with interesting and unique ways to do something, and then turn out a record that couldn’t have come about any other way. Just last year, Tod Ashley of Firewater created one – his The Golden Hour was assembled piece by piece as Ashley made his way through the Middle East, recording local musicians one at a time. The result was stunning, a one-world statement that wouldn’t have been as potent without its gimmicky origins.

The test for me is this: in five years, will I be pulling out your novel-for-now project to listen to as music? It’s impossible to tell right away, but I have two contestants this week that I think will fit that bill, two albums that are undoubtedly gimmicky, but also superb musical endeavors, ones that could not have been created any other way.

First is Ben Folds, who is no stranger to gimmicks. This is the guy, after all, who covered “Bitches Ain’t Shit” as a piano ballad, and who made an entire album with William Shatner. If you’re familiar with Folds, you know the geeky excitement he feels over projects like these, and you can just imagine how pumped he was to put together his latest, Ben Folds Presents University A Cappella.

The concept’s in the title, but here it is anyway: rather than compile a greatest hits collection, Folds sought out college a cappella groups to perform their versions of his songs, and traveled to their schools to record them on their home turf. Right now you’re either shaking your head or you’re grinning widely, depending on whether you’ve ever sat in the audience and been dazzled by one of these a cappella collectives. I love this music – the arrangements, the performances, the inventive ways the singers come up with to emulate the original records. And it’s obvious Folds loves it too.

Better than that, though, University A Cappella gives these singers the chance to be on a Ben Folds album, and have their voices heard around the world. That’s just neat. Folds waded through dozens of audition tapes and, in the end, selected 14 college groups from across the country. He leads it off with two from his native North Carolina, but includes contributions from Ohio, Georgia, Louisiana, California, Illinois, Massachusetts, Pennsylvania, Colorado and a bunch of others.

And man, these performances are wonderful. I’m biased, of course, but one of my favorites is “Magic,” by the University of Chicago’s Voices in Your Head. While I like the song well enough on The Unauthorized Biography of Reinhold Messner, I think I like this version more – the bass singers approximate the tympani hits while the harmonies just soar. It’s heartrending. I’m also quite fond of the Washington University Mosaic Whispers’ take on “Still Fighting It.” Individual singers are not credited, but the lead male voice on this one is extraordinary.

Washington University (in St. Louis) also provides the closing track, performed by that school’s Amateurs. It’s an amazing version of “The Luckiest,” perhaps Folds’ prettiest song – the piano-and-strings version on Rockin’ the Suburbs sends chills anyway, but the gentle backing voices swelling and subsiding here are almost impossibly gorgeous. Of course, a cappella groups can rock, too – check out the University of Rochester Midnight Ramblers’ version of “Army,” with its full-on brass solos done entirely in voice. I’m also extremely impressed with the complex arrangement of “You Don’t Know Me,” by the University of Georgia group With Someone Else’s Money.

As much as I love this stuff, you can imagine just how many shades of pale white the executives at Epic Records must have turned when Folds pitched this idea. As a sales booster, the record company forced Folds to contribute two tracks himself, and as much as he says he didn’t want to outshine the college groups, his tunes are highlights. He reinvents “Boxing,” the pretty closing track from the first Ben Folds Five album, giving it a cheesy/brilliant middle section, and his take on “Effington” absolutely slams. I prefer this version by far to the one on Way to Normal – there’s something every few seconds that cracks me up. (And the opening and closing vocals by his kids, Gracie and Louis, are adorable.) It’s the best thing here by a country mile.

But Ben’s brilliance shouldn’t detract from the sterling arrangements and performances elsewhere on University A Cappella. This is such a great idea, and the groups highlighted here have made the most of their spotlight moments. (One more highlight? The smooth-jazz overtones of “Selfless, Cold and Composed” are beautifully accented by the Sacramento State Jazz Singers.) Yeah, it’s gimmicky, but it’s also wonderful, something I’ll be listening to for years to come.

As novel as Folds’ project is, British Sea Power have outdone it. It’s strange for me to type that sentence, because they’re not one of my favorite bands – their three albums have steadily improved on one another, but they’re still an unimaginative three-chord drama-rock band, one you can imagine forming over a shared love of U2 while in the pub one day. Their sound has grown bigger with each record, although their songwriting has struggled to keep pace. They unironically titled their third album Do You Like Rock Music?, so you kind of know what you’re getting.

But their new venture, Man of Aran, simply blew me away, and I’m stunned that such a project has sprung from this band. Here’s the high concept: Man of Aran is a 1934 silent film by Robert Flaherty, the man who made Nanook of the North. It depicts 19th-century life on a craggy Irish island, and the daily trials of a family making their home there. The members of British Sea Power stumbled on a copy of this film, and they’ve written an entirely new score for it. The Man of Aran package includes the score on CD, and a DVD with the film and new score matched up.

Let’s start with the movie – it’s awesome. It’s not a documentary, but it looks like one, and the shoot was obviously quite dangerous, with actors climbing up rocky surfaces and braving raging waves and really battling giant fish. The images captured here are amazing, and Flaherty drives home the emotional bonds between the three characters as well – there’s an extended sequence near the end in which the father rows his tiny boat through choppy seas, trying to get home, while the mother and son run along the coastline, concerned for his safety. The final scenes of all three walking back towards home are lovely.

As good as the film is, it’s improved immeasurably by British Sea Power’s new score. In truth, it’s not a million miles away from the music they’ve always made – it’s repetitive, deriving its impact from dramatic crescendos and breakdowns – but the band has never wielded this kind of force before. On its own, the score is by turns the prettiest and most powerful music the band has ever made, but paired with the movie, the effect is extraordinary.

The early shots of the family getting ready for its day, and of the mother gathering seaweed for her garden (since there is no soil on Aran), are paired with lovely piano-and-texture pieces that remind me of Sigur Ros, and a heartrending cover of old folk tune “Come Wander With Me.” “Boy Vertiginous” accompanies shots of the young son climbing the rocks to fish, and is merely a prelude to the most impressive section of both movie and score, the nearly 12-minute “Spearing the Sunfish.” While the father and his fellow villagers wrestle with a massive fish, hoping to kill it for food and oil, the band erupts, firing bursts of electric guitar noise over a thumping percussion backdrop. It builds and builds to almost unbearable levels, and finally collapses in a heap.

The final third of the film is more sedate, and the music matches it. The father’s treacherous trek home is accompanied by the 11-minute “It Comes Back Again,” and the music is reassuring and hopeful, a nice counterpoint to the nervous energy of the footage. The film-ending reunion is scored with closing track “No Man is an Archipelago,” a reworking of Rock Music track “The Great Skua.” (Two other old BSP songs have been repurposed here as well.) It’s the perfect closer, triumphant and nostalgic at once – you feel the relief and joy as the father comes ashore, and as the three of them make their way towards the horizon. The final choral swells are just gorgeous, as all is right in this battered, difficult world.

If you’d told me last year that one of my favorite projects of 2009 would come from British Sea Power, I might have choked on my own laughter. But here it is – Man of Aran is an unqualified success, a fantastic idea executed brilliantly. Is it a gimmick? Sure, but it’s also a work of art, a cross-generational collaboration that yields astounding results. It’s also the sound of a band discovering its own power, and finding unexpected inspiration in something more than seven decades old. That’s kind of beautiful, if you think about it. Whatever you call it, Man of Aran is one of 2009’s best things, and for me will likely be as timeless as the rocks of Aran itself.

Next week, examining critical acclaim with Grizzly Bear and the Dirty Projectors.

See you in line Tuesday morning.