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Tales from the Lonely Avenue

25/09/2010
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What a curious twist. Ben Folds is a very capable lyricist and one of the people who can make relationship babble exciting and interesting. It’s not just my particular fancy either, he’s got enough critical renown to prove the point. But here he is now teamed up with Nick Hornby (he of the High Fidelity fame) who takes care of the lyrics for Lonely Avenue. It’s happened before on Folds’ side projects (notably the William Shatner-fronted Has Been) but a whole album of that team work is enough to make one wonder whether it’s another side project or a ‘legitimate’ entry to Folds’ solo discography.

Folds himself has stated that outside the lyrical twist and notation about it on the front cover Lonely Avenue is a full-bloodied Ben Folds album and that statement rings true. Musically it’s very definitely very Folds-esque in the most positive way: after the chaotic and inner turmoil-filled Way to Normal, Lonely Avenue is a return to a more controlled Folds and to his usual golden standard of songwriting, from the string-laden ballads to the quirky piano rockers. Lyrically, if the album cover didn’t state it so loud and proud you probably wouldn’t have any idea that the words were written by someone else. Hornby isn’t a lyricist by trade and that shows up occasionally in out-of-ordinary lyrical quirks (such as the spelling lessons of “Password” that form an integral part of the song’s narrative rather than just act as an easy hook), but otherwise the two men operate in the same subject matter and because Hornby isn’t exactly a bad writer the quality remains fairly consistently good throughout, much like Folds’ writing usually, with a couple of right great ones like the beforementioned “Password” or the personal curse of the one-hit-wonder depicted in “Belinda”. Really, for something that looks like it’s something that makes an album special and unique, the “different lyricist” twist of Lonely Avenue is probably its most uneventful feature.

That can be seen as a good thing in the sense that it doesn’t distract from the fact that Lonely Avenue is a really good Ben Folds album and a welcome leap back to the man’s usual stability. It’s nothing Folds hasn’t done before and while that could be perceived as a flaw for us fans of musical evolution, there’s many, many worse examples of musicians sticking to what they know than Lonely Avenue. The catalogue of quirky singalong-enducing piano rock songs gets some worthwhile additions from “Levi Johnston’s Blues” that sounds very little until it hits killer chorus, the merry “Above Ground” and hypnotically rhythmic “Doc Pomus”. Folds’ expertise with ballads comes to surface with “Picture Window” and “Password”, the latter which definitely deserves its third mention in a single review. “Saskia Hamilton” nods to the frantic antics of Way to Normal and is a bizarre blast of maniac fun. There’s no misses and plenty of hits and while stylistically it walks on treaded grounds it never sounds disappointing because of it. If anything, it just reminds of Folds’ strengths.

And how could anything that builds on someone’s very strengths be anything else than really good, if we’re frank?

MP3: From Above
Stream the whole album on Myspace

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