Cue the Orchestra
Ben Folds and the Dear Hunter, Strings Attached

I have always responded well to orchestras.

I know some people think orchestral music is bombastic, and the use of strings in pop music is both beyond the pale and over the top. I’ve never felt this way. Orchestral arrangements, to me, connote grandeur and importance, and they have since I was a kid. Not counting actual orchestral music, which I have always appreciated – my grandmother was a concert pianist and loved most things with strings – the first time I can recall being gobsmacked by an orchestral part in a rock song was “Closer to Home,” by Grand Funk Railroad. My father had a best-of on LP when I was a pre-teen, and I listened to that song over and over. (“Loneliness” was on there too, and that also did it for me.)

After that, well, I can remember buying the great Moody Blues album Days of Future Passed and adoring “Nights in White Satin” particularly. I can remember hearing the Pet Shop Boys’ remarkable “Left to My Own Devices” and marveling at the sweeping strings rubbing up against the mundane lyrics. But most of all, I can remember the first time I heard “A Day in the Life,” the monumental closing track of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, and having my fragile little mind blown by the insane cacophonous crescendos at its mid-point and finale. I’d never heard anything like it. The Beatles used strings like few other bands before or since, and that’s just one of the millions of reasons I love them.

After that, anything that could be described as symphonic had me at hello. When underrated funk-rock band Extreme announced that their third album would include a 20-minute suite performed with an 80-piece orchestra, I think you could hear my heart rate speed up. The stunning result, “Everything Under the Sun,” is still a favorite. Harder-edged bands like Metallica and Dream Theater got into the act, and I ate it up. Pain of Salvation composed a wonderful record called Be with an outfit called the Orchestra of Eternity, and I play that thing at least once every six months. I’ve bought symphonic records from the likes of Yes and Elvis Costello and XTC and adored them. And Frank Zappa’s orchestral work is some of my favorite music ever.

I will probably never be good enough to write orchestral music – it still awes me that one can harness 70 or 80 players and create such incredible sounds with them. I think the lure of that kind of compositional power draws in a lot of musicians, at least once. If you have the opportunity to do something like that, I imagine you’d want to take advantage of it. For me, then, it was no surprise when Ben Folds announced that he’d written a concerto for piano and orchestra. At a certain point in a career like his, that seems inevitable.

Folds has always worked with strings, from the very first Ben Folds Five album – there’s a swell quartet playing on the lovely “Boxing” – and I’ve always enjoyed the dimensions those arrangements bring to his work. Some are considering his new album, So There, a departure, and I guess at first glance it might seem like one. In addition to his three-movement concerto, So There features eight self-described “chamber-rock” songs arranged and performed with New York ensemble yMusic. And while those arrangements are pretty neat, I have a hard time imagining listening to those first eight songs and thinking them the work of anyone else.

If there’s a departure here, it’s in the bitterness and rancor of the lyrics, which plumb darker depths than Folds usually does. They’re actually something of an unpleasant experience, Folds lashing out at (I presume) his recently-ex-wife again and again. Opener “Capable of Anything” is one of the album’s best, its colorful arrangement leaping from the speakers, and its words comparably gentle – it’s about how the phrase “capable of anything” could be used to mean that one is capable of great harm as well as great achievement. Its chorus includes the first slap: “I stopped caring what you think about me, I gave up…”

“Not a Fan” is a delightfully orchestrated ballad about differences of artistic opinion that turns cranky in the middle, Folds switching from “I’m not a fan but maybe I could learn to be” to “I’ll wait in the lobby” to “go get your t-shirt signed, fan girl, I may or may not be here when you return.” (There’s a spoken “so fuck you” at the end, just to drive the point home.) The title song is lively, strings swirling about the percussive piano, while Folds turns petulant on the mic: “You taught me nothing, I owe you nothing, how could I forget you when there’s nothing to forget, so there…” The title phrase conveys the sense that Folds knows he’s being petty, but it doesn’t stop him.

Thankfully, the words only really detract from the stellar arrangements on first listen, before the shock wears off. The final minutes of “So There” are superb, piano and strings and drums and oboes and clarinets all weaving together into a lovely blanket. The only one that doesn’t work is “Phone in a Pool,” the disposable first single. I’m also put off by the crudeness of “F10-D-A,” a brief musical joke at a fourth-grade humor level that Folds somehow convinced everyone to fully orchestrate. (Effed in the A, get it?) I cringe at “Yes Man,” with its “why didn’t you tell me that I got fat” lyrical conceit that winds its way to this stinker: “Now I’m crying all the way from the photomat because I see I’ve got more chins than a Chinese phonebook has.” Yes, for real.

Most of that I can forgive by the time Folds gets to the final of these songs, “I’m Not the Man.” It’s a remarkably mature piece of work, bitter and dark, sung with a frayed urgency in his voice. “There could be fewer days ahead than gone,” he sings, concluding that he’s not the man he used to be: “I’m dancing on my own grave.” He spends the final minutes of this tender, lovely tune listing off things he used to be, and I nearly teared up hearing things like “endless potential” and “the man in the mirror” among them. It’s clear-eyed and unblinking, and one of Folds’ very best songs, driven to the stratosphere by yMusic’s fantastic embellishments.

After half an hour of pain and bile, the concerto comes as a welcome burst of optimistic energy. It’s a grand piece of work, as one might expect, Folds throwing in every full-orchestra idea he has. There’s nothing particularly subtle about it – it’s bold, filmic music – but it’s unfailingly interesting and sweeping. The first (and longest) movement is my favorite for its constantly shifting, almost cartoonish tone, but it all works. The Nashville Symphony Orchestra is, of course, terrific, and anyone still questioning whether Folds is one of the best pianists in rock music should find plenty of evidence here.

And I’m very glad the concerto is here. The bitter tone and failed humor of So There threaten to drag it down, but with a full third of the album taken up with this sparkling piece, it ends up passing muster. It’s not his best work, and I’m still not sure it was worth putting Ben Folds Five to rest again, but the good outweighs the bad. I’m worried about Folds’ mental state, and I hope by his next outing he’ll have worked out some of these feelings of spite, because while they may be honest, they’re the worst things about So There, and when they’re tempered and softened, the album shines.

* * * * *

I’ve been a Ben Folds fan since his first record, so I didn’t need any encouragement to check out his orchestral album. But apparently I did need some convincing to try The Dear Hunter – I’ve had most of their records for years, and never heard them.

This happens more than I’d like. I hear about something that I want to check out, I buy it, it gets buried in the stack of new stuff and I don’t get to it for a long time. Meanwhile, more albums by this band come out, and because I am a ridiculous completist, I buy those too. Finally, years down the line, I listen to the whole stack of CDs, and quite often I kick myself for not experiencing them sooner. I don’t know why I do this, and if I could be a music obsessive full time, I probably wouldn’t have to. This is my life.

Anyway, I told you all that to tell you this: I’ve had the majority of the Dear Hunter’s catalog for years now, and I only listened to it all last week, in a marathon session. That’s all it took to catapult them into my list of favorite artists. I’m still in the process of fully absorbing their latest, but I’m positively salivating for anything they do next.

The Dear Hunter is the project of singer/songwriter/multi-instrumentalist Casey Crescenzo. A mere 31 years old, Crescenzo has already created a body of work with more breadth and ambition than most artists even attempt. The main thrust of that work is a massive story in song, told over a planned six albums, each called acts. Even on the debut EP, Act I: The Lake South, the River North, Crescenzo was painting with a wide palette, working orchestral flourishes into his driving indie rock, and his vision has only grown. Act II and Act III were bigger and better, showing a true commitment to creating the most extraordinary music of which he was capable.

I don’t want to get too far into the weeds by summarizing the story Crescenzo is telling. In short, it seems to be about loss of innocence and the unfortunate path of vengeance, from the point of view of a character who makes one terrible decision after another. He’s the son of a prostitute who fled the big city to raise him by the lake and the river, but his mother’s past caught up with her and she was killed, leaving him to seek revenge. Along the way, he falls in and out of love with a prostitute in the city, then goes off to fight in World War I, meeting his half-brother, who dies in battle. Our hero (and I use the term loosely) takes his half-brother’s identity, killing the boy’s father in the process, as Act III: Life and Death ends.

And that’s where Crescenzo left it for six years. Perhaps knowing that Act IV would require a more diverse compositional skill set, he took on The Color Spectrum, a series of nine EPs each representing (yes) a color of the spectrum. This project proved revelatory, as Crescenzo dove into different styles and different shades throughout its 36 songs, none of which sound like much on Acts I-III. He followed this up with a terrific pop album called Migrant, proving he was adept at writing shorter, unconnected songs. (Seriously, Migrant is really good.)

And then he went and made a goddamn symphony, called Amour and Attrition, recording it with the Brno Philharmonic Orchestra in the Czech Republic. And it’s a fine piece, showing that Crescenzo knows his way around an orchestra and can write with dynamics and grace. Amour and Attrition feels now like the last necessary step on the road to Act IV: Rebirth in Reprise, the most striking, diverse, ambitious and orchestral of the four acts. It’s a great record anyway, but if you’ve heard the first three acts and can recognize the themes running through this story, it’ll knock you out.

As I said before, I’m still fully absorbing this thing, and I don’t have a full handle on it yet. Crescenzo’s lyrics are often vague and poetic, and gleaning plot details from them is a delicious challenge. From what I have gathered, the story of Act IV opens with our hero living his half-brother’s life, complete with mother and fiancée. The mother dies, and our hero, lost and confused, heads back into the city, cheats on his lover (with, I suspect, the prostitute from Act II), and hatches a scheme to finally dispatch the villain of the piece, the one who killed his own mother.

He uses dirty tricks and tactics to win a city-wide election, tactics which cost him his lover, and plans to expose the villain’s double life – he’s a priest by day and secretly a pimp by night, running both the church and the Dime, the city’s brothel. But before he can, he’s hoist by his own petard – the priest confronts him and threatens to expose his own lie. It ends with a song called “Ouroboros,” the snake eating its own tail, lies weaving around lies, leaving nothing changed. Our hero has become the very thing he hated: a two-faced power-hungry liar. Pretty dark, and I can’t imagine that Acts V and VI will get any brighter.

If this sounds like a slog, well, you haven’t heard it. The music on Act IV is vibrant, constantly shifting and often quite beautiful. Crescenzo’s time writing shorter pop tunes and symphonies has paid off – after the traditional a cappella opening (there’s a Greek chorus narrating much of this, a further clue that we’re listening to a tragedy), “Rebirth” explodes in a flurry of strings and horns, and they stay for much of the record. But the songs themselves are often the most concise and sweeping of the Dear Hunter’s catalog. “Waves,” the first single, is a good example – it moves and breathes like a pop song, but with the breadth of an overture. “The Squeaky Wheel” hints at ELO, and “Remembered” is a gorgeous piece of chamber-pop, a stunning, string-laden ballad that lasts all of 3:50, and ends with a tremendous callback to the very first act.

With all that, you’d expect the longer songs here to be even more full-to-bursting, and you’d be right. The nine-minute “A Night on the Town,” in many ways the centerpiece here, is amazing, galloping in on a hundred horns and a shout-along chorus, then shifting and morphing into entirely new forms, often with oboes. And we get a further three movements of “The Bitter Suite,” comprising 11 minutes and detailing the hero’s examination of religion in the city. When it becomes clear why these songs are continuations of the original three “Bitter Suite” movements on Act II, it’s like a gut punch.

All that said, the final third of the record manages to go a few more uncharted places. “King of Swords (Reversed)” and “If All Goes Well,” the chapters relating to the election, are remarkably danceable, Crescenzo bringing in electronic beats and synth burbles to surprisingly great effect. The final tracks are dark and powerful, particularly “Wait,” which finds our hero hoping there isn’t a heaven to judge him for his deeds. But they don’t build to a conclusion – Crescenzo decides to end “Ouroboros” almost in mid-phrase, a clear musical cliffhanger. But that’s great, because it means he’s going to give us more, and hopefully soon.

Yes, I’m kicking myself for not listening to The Dear Hunter earlier. For one thing, this is a lot of music to process all at once. Hell, just the 73 minutes of Act IV are a lot to absorb. A couple things are pretty obvious, though – Casey Crescenzo is quite a talent, and Act IV: Rebirth in Reprise is one of the best and grandest albums of the year. I’ll be listening from now on.

Next week, Slayer, Duran Duran, David Gilmour and maybe one or two others. Follow Tuesday Morning 3 A.M. on Facebook here.

See you in line Tuesday morning.