How We Helped Write Rock History

Way to Normal by Ben Folds

Cristy: In spring 2007, we saw Ben Folds at ISU's Braden Auditorium. Midway through, he announced a new song that he'd written on the way to Normal from St. Louis—a tribute to a little town called “Effington.” He jokingly sang about Effington's residents “effing”  in their yards and in their cars.  Although he got the name wrong (it’s actually “Effingham”—think F-ingham) the crowd loved it. Since it seemed crudely composed and sung as if Folds were making it up as he went along, I figured "Effington" was a one-off throwaway—a gift to his downstate Illinois fans.

Fast-forward to fall 2008. Browsing through Luna Records in Indianapolis, William and I discovered that Ben Folds’ new album is called Way to Normal. Scanning the track listing, my eyes stopped at "Effington" and practically bugged out of their sockets.  “Hey! I think Ben Folds’ CD refers to Normal, Illinois!” I exclaimed to William.

William:  I squinted at the title, and sure enough it was “to” and not “too.”

C: We were there when it began! As spectators at the genesis of that song, present at the concert referred to in the title of the album, we were witnesses to a moment in rock history!

W: Well, it wasn’t Woodstock, but I still felt part of something kind of important.

C: So we bought it. I’m a huge Ben Folds (and Ben Folds Five) fan, but I often have to been to be in a certain mood. His songs sometimes can be emotional ("Landed," “Eddie Walker, This is Your Life,” “Evaporated”) and sometimes I just feel too raw to go through Ben Folds’ meatgrinder of feelings about the depressed realization that life just doesn't go the way you thought it would. I have to be melancholy to listen to Songs for Silverman or The Biography of Reinhold Messner, even though I love the albums.

Way to Normal is different. A more upbeat effort than the introspective Songs for Silverman, Way to Normal sounds looser, rocks harder, and moves faster. I didn't like it the first time I heard it. The first song ("Hiroshima (B B B Benny Hit His Head)") was recorded live, which immediately made me think it was a throwaway album of B-sides and live tracks. While some songs sounded polished, others were distorted. I thought it was all over the place, a mish-mash, and way uneven. When the CD ended, I was less than fulfilled. Then William pressed “play” again. This time Folds's  hooks sank right into my skin. By the fifth time through, I was singing along.

Some songs seemed to be rowdy, lower-fi Ben Folds Five songs (“Errant Dog”); others were more like the reflective solo artist (“Cologne”). Way to Normal boasts the usual Ben Folds anger and sarcasm, but he seems to be having a really, really good time. His dark humor permeates the disc, such as the solemn spoken preface to “Bitch Went Nuts.” Speaking of that, Ben Folds sure seems to sing about bitches a lot. (Could the fact that he’s been married and divorced three times play a part? Who knows?)

W: Ben Folds must be a master of the art of the break-up song, for better and for worse, and he shows his range here from the puerile “Bitch Went Nuts” to the more gracious, wrenching “Cologne.” I have always gravitated to the immature Ben Folds, the bratty punk pianist of his debut Ben Folds Five. This CD is a return to the casual, childish Folds. With a charming disregard for commercial potential and classical posterity, he deploys cussing in most of the songs, even in the choruses. There are at least two moments where you can hear him or someone in the band laughing mid-song.

C: Folds also ventures beyond the piano, which is a cool departure from his instrumental formula. There are more funky, fuzzy sounds like mellotron and Moog, especially in “Free Coffee,” which also concludes with a quirky organ solo reminiscent of Steely Dan’s “Your Gold Teeth.” He also duets with Regina Spektor in "You Don't Know Me." (Spektor's lispy soprano normally annoys me, but sounds great here.)

W: It's true that, while the emotional range of these songs is somewhat compressed, there is a diversity of arrangements. “Free Coffee” stands out with timbres like I’ve not heard before. With its eerie distorted drumming and trebly sequencer-like keyboard sounds, it makes becoming a rich rock star sound like getting abducted by aliens—and maybe it is. The a-cappella intro to “Effington” is an odd touch, perhaps a jab at the midwestern collegiate mindset. The synthesizer on “The Frown Song” is old school, sounding more like The Day the Earth Stood Still than the Eurythmics. There is a string quartet used to subtle, excellent effect in a few places. But the familiar piano bouncing through the album is never silent for long.

Although I have not been an avid student of Ben Folds’s solo career, I endorse this disc, especially for parties, dog owners, or recent divorcees.

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