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So I finally got around to listening to Ben Folds‘ new a cappella album, and I had some thoughts I wanted to append to last week’s post. Those of you who are still in the process of forgiving me for bringing Ben Folds and a cappella in to this space to begin with will probably want to skip this one. (Also, full disclosure: I belonged to an a cappella group in college that was denied a spot on the album. I can now confirm that the singers who made the cut turned out to be much more talented than I am.)
I have always thought a cappella music was a lot more fun to perform than to listen to, but I can appreciate a well-realized arrangement when I hear one. This album has more than a few of those; that’s not the problem. The problem is that the portion of Folds’s oeuvre that lends itself to the a cappella adaptation is the sort of soft-edged superpop that been his general tack ever since Ben Folds Five disbanded in 2000. No vocalists, however talented, can imitate the frenetic piano runs and heedless mashing that made Folds so fun in the ’90s, and few would dare attempt his jazzier arrangements (“Sports and Wine,” “Uncle Walter,” etc.), which are more suited to piano than voice anyway.
Yes, Ben Folds wrote pop ballads in his days with Five, but they were always carefully nestled among those rawer uptempo tracks as ballast. Here, these songs are adrift in a homogeneous sea of melancholy. The album has no arc; just ultra-smooth crooning above triad chords, song after song, with only a handful of exceptions. (Two are worth noting: “Selfless, Cold, and Composed,” by the Sacramento State Jazz Singers, was an ambitious rendering of one of the best breakup songs of the past two decades, and the only track from this album that made it on my iPod; and “Magic,” by the University of Chicago Voices in Your Head. The latter unquestionably falls in to the emo-pop category, but the arrangement is so different from the original that the song is a completely unique artifact—which should be the goal of any group, a cappella or otherwise, when attempting a cover.)
This is not to knock the groups. My point is that Folds’s best music—the stuff he wrote when he was a pissed-off kid in North Carolina who probably wouldn’t be caught dead in a white turtleneck sweater and beret—cannot be imitated by human voices, no matter how talented. Meanwhile, choral adaptations of his latter-day work, even if objectively pleasant, are likely to wind up as inferior facsimiles of unremarkable pop songs.