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Album Review: Ben Folds – Way to Normal

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It’s depressing that Ben Folds is considered “innovative” on releases that aren’t specifically his. Whether he’s lounging out with Weird “Al” Yankovic or laying down beats for William “Kirk” Shatner, it’s always more interesting and daring than his actual material under his own name. It’s as if the modern piano man himself is terrified at being edgy (musically, not lyrically) all alone. On his seventh studio album, and his third solo effort, Folds is still churning out marginalized piano melodies that might have been extraordinary if it weren’t 2008, and ten or so years after Ben Folds Five.

That being said, Way to Normal is still a catchy pop record. But that’s just it. There’s nothing here that stretches or breaks the barriers of say, “quaint.” Everything works off of mechanized drum beats and piano scales that seem borrowed from half a dozen Folds tunes found elsewhere in his solo work. In fact, there’s not even a strong, solid song within the twelve tracks available. It’s either tongue in cheek humor or overdone angst that seem perfect for someone fifteen years under.

Admittedly, “Hiroshima (B B B Benny Hits His Head)” is a great opener, filled with splendor, bombast and authority. It’s as if the North Carolina native might actually be on to something here, hinting that there’s more than what meets the eye. Hell, there are at least four hooks in the chorus alone. It’s a song that provides reason for his relevance today. Unfortunately, it’s misleading by all means. What follows after are staples not only to Folds’s discography, but to this genre alone. “Dr Yang” seems dusted off from The Beatles “Hey Bulldog”, while “The Frown Song” sports a ridiculous chorus (“Rock on, rock on, with a fashionable frown/ And spread the love around”). And although the latter is more tolerable than the album’s entire second half, that’s not really saying much either.

One thing to salvage out of this clunky mess is Folds’s duet with Regina Spektor on “You Don’t Know Me”. It’s spunky and cheeky, with all the makings of a trendy indie classic. Regrettably, it’s not a perfect song by any means, either. There’s a moment when Folds seems to channel Panic at the Disco, and when Spektor whispers, “…at all”, it’s so peachy that one might want to actually laugh. In fact, come to think of it, as good a song it might be, it does begin this smarmy, nonchalant layer of immaturity which seems to carry over to the album’s other eight tracks.

There’s the Cool Ethan (of 2002’s Slackers) that Folds emulates in “Cologne” (one of the album’s finer moments, actually), the Weezer-like instrumentation in the very, very lame “Errant Dog”, the 80’s throwback that misses the mark in “Free Coffee” (which actually sounds worse than the cut off his “fake” album), and the rather juvenile and Something Corporate-like swagger of “Bitch Went Nuts.” If those descriptions don’t cause the stomach to turn some, then by all means let this review warrant a listen.

To think there are still three more tracks. “Brainwascht” could have actually been a strong number, had Folds been able to write another part; instead, it comes off repetitive and stoic, especially with the mundane drum beat. “Effington” should bring some laughs… to ten year olds. There’s some fun, driving music here, but it’s lackluster in its unstable, shoddy lyrics (“Do Normal people do it too?/ Normal people do it, people do it, people do it”). It all sounds so earnest and heartwarming, but on repeated listens it becomes borderline asinine. At one point, you might be anticipating someone to yell out, “Would you like anymore gum? More gum? More gum?” Yeah, it’s in that league.

And while “Kylie From Connecticut” fancies some sharper lyrics, at least for this album, it comes off too late and serves too weak of a closer. It’s a fascinating story, but nonetheless, it’s the same ol’, same ol’ from Folds: an angsty melodrama that’s close to his heart. Only now after seven albums, it comes off natural and predictable. It’s here where he’s at fault. There’s nothing unexpected about this release. It’s all preordained and just so damn “quaint” that one wonders if we’re to take this seriously. With a title like Way to Normal, one hopes (and prays) that this isn’t the normalcy Folds might aspire to attain. That would be disastrous, especially when his last studio album’s single (“Landed”) is miles ahead of anything these twelve whole tracks can offer. That’s not normal, that’s a career meltdown. Speaking of which, is there any truth to Folds joining his former band anytime soon? Might be due time.

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