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Good Records I Wish Were Great

So there’s this new Ben Folds single.

It’s called “2020,” and it’s his first new song in almost two years. I’ve not heard whether this is the first rumblings of a new Ben Folds album, but if it so, it will be his first in five years. He’s spent that time writing a memoir and working as the artistic advisor to the National Symphony Orchestra in Washington, D.C., so he hasn’t been idle by any means. But this is the first real Ben Folds single in some time, and I was excited to hear it.

Now, don’t get me wrong. I like this song a lot. It’s got a classic Folds piano foundation, a sweet melody and a good hook. But it also sounds like a tune Folds could have written in five minutes. (I know it’s a product of his regular quarantine live shows.) It sounds very much like the b-sides he used to write quickly, like “One Down.” It makes its singular joke a couple times, takes a bow and leaves.

I want to reiterate that there’s nothing wrong with this. It’s fun, it’s of the moment, it’s well put together. But for a songwriter known for his observational skill and incisiveness, this one doesn’t rank among his best. It’s perfectly fine, and I’m happy to hear it and happy that it exists. But will I remember it fondly in ten years? Probably not.

I mention this because this is how I am starting to feel about the new Rufus Wainwright album, Unfollow the Rules. Wainwright’s story is similar to Folds’ – Rules is his first new album in four years, and his first pop album in eight. He’s spent a lot of that time writing his second opera and re-staging his first, and it feels like his heart is truly in these projects. I’m glad we got at least one more glittering orchestral rock record from him.

And the album itself is quite good. Let’s start off by saying that I would listen to Rufus Wainwright sing my tax returns back to me. His voice is absolutely flawless, and at 47 he hasn’t lost an iota of impact from that instrument. He sounds amazing on Rules, from first song to last. The production by Mitchell Froom is as big and ornate as you could want, and these songs are treated lovingly.

The songs themselves, though? They’re fine. They’re good, even. The opening one-two punch of “Trouble in Paradise” and “Damsel in Distress” draws you in nicely, the title track builds convincingly over six and a half minutes (and that falsetto in the climactic minutes is lovely), and tunes like “Romantical Man” sound like they were lifted right from a Broadway show. Wainwright indulges his funnier side on “You Ain’t Big,” and it’s a hoot.

I had a really good time listening to Unfollow the Rules, even when it started to drag in the middle. I especially appreciated the final act, where things get dark – “Early Morning Madness” and “Hatred” are minor-key powerhouses, and the wild bridge of the former may be my favorite moment on this album. The closing track, “Alone Time,” is a perfect comedown after that. The third act contains the rise and fall of emotion that I missed in the previous two acts, and when it arrives it’s a nice surprise.

So yes, this is a good record, and I’m happy to recommend it. But as I listen to it again, I’m struck by how often these songs are content to stay within the realm of good, and don’t break out into great. If you’ve been reading this column for a while, you know I think Rufus Wainwright is one of the best songwriters in the world, and that Poses and the two Want records are close to perfect in my mind. This one doesn’t do it for me quite as much as those masterpieces did. It reminds me more of Release the Stars, a record I like but don’t often return to.

That is, of course, fine. These 12 new songs are pretty and dramatic, and as I mentioned earlier, Wainwright sings them like a dream. If they don’t match up to his earlier material, well, his earlier material is almost impossibly good. Unfollow the Rules is a fine record, and I hope I grow to eat every critical word I’ve said about it here. But as of right now, I like it a lot, but I don’t love it like I used to love Wainwright’s work.

I can say the same about the new Ray LaMontagne album Monovision. Like with Wainwright, I’ve been a fan of LaMontagne’s for a long time, back to his first record, 2004’s Trouble. He’s got one of those husky yet silky voices and his catalog is impressively restless, moving from the orchestrated folk of Till the Sun Turns Black to the pop of Supernova to the electrified psychedelia of Ouroboros. I’ve liked most of it, but loved his work only sporadically.

In case you couldn’t see this coming: I like Monovision, but don’t love it. For this record – actually recorded in mono – LaMontagne challenged himself to play every instrument, which results in a stripped-back, breezier affair. There’s little but acoustic guitar and vocals on several of these tracks, like the Robert Plant-ish opener “Roll Me Mama, Roll Me,” which is fine, because he’s a serviceable drummer at best on tracks like “Strong Enough.” The focus here is on his voice, and it’s stunning as always.

But am I going to remember these songs next year? I don’t think I am. The whole record feels somehow weightless. “Summer Clouds” is nice but a little formless, while the Western-tinged “We’ll Make It Through” is very pretty but very surface-level. I admire LaMontagne for making an album so steeped in positivity and peacefulness during these times, and in many ways it’s exactly what I needed right now.

But it wafts away on the wind as soon as it’s done playing, and I don’t know how much of it will stick. LaMontagne’s best work is indelible – I can still remember the first time I heard “Be Here Now” – and this sweet little thing makes as little noise as possible, almost apologetic in its slightness. I hope LaMontagne got what he wanted to out of it. For my part, I like Monovision, but don’t have a lot to say about it. It is, in the words of one of the songs, here and gone again.

Next week, probably a few records that have no discernible connection. Come on back to find out what they are.

See you in line Tuesday morning.