Okay, so, here’s the thing about Ben Folds: he is, ostensibly, an asshole.
I’m tempted to relay a story that is more Chinese whispers (or “Telephone,” as it were) in nature than something I experienced firsthand. As the story goes though, outlined in Folds’ tour rider, that document which outlines all production, food and other ill-begotten artist requests, was a line that caught a few of the staff working said show in surprise:
“No crew members shall look the artist (Folds) in the eyes.”
Again, this could all be hearsay, but based on the smug tone of some of the songs on Folds’ second solo LP Way to Normal, the anecdote may have legs.
While the lead vocalist for Ben Folds Five has been known for his witty repartee and vanity, one needs only to look to this album’s cover art for an indication of his priggishness.
On it, Folds takes a seated meditation position, while the bassist for his “solo” shows, Jared Reynolds, holds a cup of coffee on a platter, and drummer Sam Smith shields his singer from… I’m guessing the haters? In this light, his band’s servitude is an indication of his autocratic rule.
If the thematic content contained within Way to Normal (in which “Normal” is both a reference to the city which inspired the title, Normal, Illinois, and Folds’ supposed desire to return to that state of being – which, as I will point out, is bullshit) is to be taken at face value in the same way as any “Please don’t look me in the face”/holier-than-thou demeanor, there’s some argument to be made that maybe, just maybe, he really is just a smarmy prick.
I guess I’m getting ahead of myself.
Way to Normal opens with a song called “Hiroshima (B B B Benny Hit His Head),” a chronicling of the time Folds took the stage in Japan, then fell off of it, cracked his skull, and attempted to continue the song with blood (and presumably, brains) on his keys.
In it, he sings:
You wanna see what’s in my head?
Check it out,
‘Cuz I got pictures of what’s in my head.
They took ‘em in Tokyo.
Sure, it’s some light hearted self-ribbing. “Dr. Yang” questions… I’m guessing chiropractors (while simultaneously ripping off Robert Sledge’s signature overdriven bass fuzz – some nod, Ben), maybe? And on the “The Frown Song,” he goes after celebrities with dietary restrictions. It’s all pretty vapid.
But it’s songs like “Free Coffee” that will piss off the bourgeois in a way that I don’t think Ben intended. The song describes Folds’ early days in his three-piece Ben Folds Five, broke and hungry but touring across America. Now, years later and after much solo success, he laments that, even though he’s rich, he doesn’t get charged for Starbucks.
It’s this aloof self-satisfaction that makes me grit my teeth in spite of his inventiveness: the song’s driving sound is an effect achieved by putting a can of Altoids on the piano’s dampers. Shut up, you snobby genius.
Furthering my confusion with Way to Normal is the arrangement of songs. Opener “Hiroshima” sounds like a mid-album song, while highlight “Effington” should have taken its place, with its tone-setting opening line If there’s a God, he is laughing at us, and our football team.
“Errant Dog” and “Brainwascht” also feel like they should be the shining lights of an A-side, but what do I know, I’m still pissed about a rich guy never having to pay for coffee.
I guess sometimes even musicians who started out as indie-minded are eventually snagged by the cold embrace of fame and fortune. DAMN YOUR TALENT TROVE, FOLDS!
From Way to Normal, this is Ben Folds’ “Effington” –
Standout tracks: “Errant Dog” and “Bitch Went Nuts” and “Brainwascht”
Weakest track: “Free Coffee” – but I’m also not a fan of either of the singles, “The Frown Song” and “You Don’t Know Me”
RIYL: Piano rock. Jukebox the Ghost.