I've been chomping at the bit to hear the Ben Folds album ever since I got a call from his management floating the idea.
Holy &#*#@!!! This is perhaps the biggest thing to happen to a cappella since the Do It A Cappella special back in 1991! The potential audience, the potential snowball effect, the immediate cachet within and without the collegiate world... amazing.
However, I'm hugely conflicted in how I should listen to this disc, as I wear a variety of hats in the a cappella community. From which perspective should I review the album?
How about all?
So, what follows is a brain dump, as I sit down and press play on the CD for the first time...
*As a community leader: EPIC WIN! The press alone has been fantastic, with articles in the Wall Street Journal, NY Daily News, Boston Globe and Washington Post...
and the album hasn't even been released!
Ben Folds has a cool-even-though-he's-kinda-nerdy quality that helps legitimize the collegiate a cappella genre in a way that, say, Bono couldn't pull off (too heavy a juxtaposition between his image/pretense and the nakedness of collegiate a cappella). I think many people will be interested in collegiate a cappella having listened to this album, which is exactly what the community needs: more good exposure.*As a fellow musician: Brilliant move, Ben. You're endearing yourself to the collegiate world, which is a core audience for you, and by pulling groups up on stage with you when you head from city to city (which I have to say I suggested to his management during our first phone call - gotta toot my own horn from time to time) you're making life-long fans night after night at a time when album sales and live ticket sales are tanking. Well played.
*As a historian: I'm appreciative of the Alan Lomax "live in the studio" approach, as it provides a clear snapshot of collegiate a cappella circa 2009. I wouldn't say that the performances and groups are the creme de la creme across the board, but on average these groups are above average. That's of value, perhaps not so much now, but definitely in 30 years.
*As a listener: Um, honestly, I'm finding the album quite difficult to just listen to. The Alan Lomax recordings are cherished by historians, but they're not on most people's iPods.
This is what I've been calling a "yearbook" recording: a bunch of people around mics, sing the song a couple times, take the best one. The soloists are pretty solid across the board, but the group recordings are all marred with some significant tuning issues throughout. As opposed to a great publicity photo in which every member of the group looks great, it's more like slightly grainy a black and white photo with everyone standing on risers. You can see everyone, and some people look good, and others don't. Great for memories, and for the people in the group, but if you weren't in the Springfield class of '84, you're not gonna spend too much time looking at it.
These are amateur singers, all expected to sing well at the exact same time. Oh - and Ben Folds is 12 feet away. No pressure.
There are some close calls: the soloist on Brick has a fantastic voice, but I'd love to hear the backs re-imagined into something more smooth and perhaps R&B, giving the song a new spin. The Kerry Marsh arranged/directed/recorded version of "Selfless, Cold and Composed" is a nice departure from the more direct "vocal translation" of the previous tracks, but it sounds like a college vocal jazz group recorded live. A good one, but who listens to college vocal jazz recordings?
And this is my frustration: if I don't want to listen to this, how many other people will? It's a great piece of publicity, showing an honest side of collegiate a cappella, but will it become a favorite for some people? Perhaps. I recall having fallen in love with mid-80's Bubs recording as a high schooler... but at the time there was very little a cappella available anywhere, and very little that was better. You can't say that about this now. Sorry, Ben.
*As the producer of BOCA: Hahahahahahaha! Is he kidding? Does he really think people would rather listen to this than BOCA tracks? I'm flabbergasted. Why didn't he include at least some existing album-quality recordings that have already been made? A mix of live-in-the-studio and produced could have yielded a radio ready single. How cool would that have been?
I sincerely wish a single track got anywhere near the sublime sweetness of Sara Bareilles' Gravity or the poppy playfulness of the UVA version of Ben Folds' "Kate" (both on BOCA 2004). Making fantastic collegiate a cappella recordings is not rocket science. Many college groups are doing it entirely on their own. I wish some of it were on this album.
Correction: there is one: "Magic" by U Chicago's Voices In Your Head. The one that Nick Hornby praised as one of the 10 best tracks released last year. By anyone. High praise indeed. However, I don't feel it's the greatest collegiate a cappella track, or even the best Ben Folds track. Heck - we didn't even choose it for BOCA. It's nice, and certainly several steps cleaner than the rest of the album which in contrast makes it sound quite nice. But the "Bum Bum, Sha la la" passages snap me straight out of the song's mood and into high school choir rehearsal.
I hate writing things like that about college a cappella groups, because it's not their fault that they're not professional (!), but at this point I'm reviewing this album as a professional release, which alas is how most people will hear it. Grandma's opinion doesn't matter on the Billboard charts.
Speaking of Billboard, Straight No Chaser's album made the chart last December, so there is doubtless a market for the contemporary a cappella sound. And with CD sales down year after year for most of the past decade, it's possible this will bubble into the top 100 as well. Then again, they were singing traditional Christmas songs (which appeals to everyone from preschool kids to senior citizens) and the tracks were meticulously recorded and mixed so that every moment shimmers in perfect tune. Plus, Atlantic put them on a national tour, making them the actual focus of the album. Do Ben Folds fans want to hear college students singing his songs, if they already have recordings of him singing them? The two tracks he self-recorded might entice them...
Which I forgot to mention: Ben's own first attempts at multi-tracked a cappella. And? Well, first of all I'm kinda pissed. He didn't let the students clean up their tracks, but here his tracks have been lined up and auto-tuned. And in places sequenced. So, my respect and understanding for his field-recording purism has been eroded. It's like a reality show, but one guy gets to sleep in a hotel and take a shower while everyone else is left on the beach night after night. I'm kinda pissed, honestly.
Especially because his use of modern recording technology is a bit, um, crude. Rough. Example: the vocal percussion sounds are not great, and sound like they've been chopped to bits. Not that he's a vocal percussionist, but there are people who know how to do this, and can make bad collegiate a cappella percussionists sound great. Why not call them? Why reinvent the wheel? It leaves him back in 2001, sonically.
And Ben's a singer who, calling a spade a spade, sings flat. A lot. I recall seeing some hotel channel special on him, amazed at how consistently he was under the pitch (just him and the piano). He's a superlative songwriter and has an undeniable charm, but I was wishing he'd taken a little more care with his vocal performance (it, too, was live in the studio, which is cool... but as a pro, he might benefit from some voice lessons). Oh snap. Did I just tell Ben Folds he needs voice lessons? Well, there goes any chance I'll be invited backstage at his next show.
I do like his version of Boxing, which sounds like an appropriately swoopy recording of a Randy Newman song (I'm reminded of the Nilsson sings Newman album). Dunno exactly why he has an operatic female descant in places, but it all works. But he is quite out of tune at times with himself. Sometimes sounds cool, but sometimes is just distracting and sounds like sloppy background singing, especially when he's doubling himself and there's some rather wild beating going on (the result of being out of tune with himself). I'm definitely letting my hubris show unflatteringly when I say I wish I were in the studio with him when he was tracking this so I could have sent him back in the booth to retrack some of those lines, because this track is pretty close to being absolutely superlative. A microcosm of the album in its fantastic potential and frustrating execution.
This whole album, in total, is a giant ball of conflicting sounds, thoughts, meanings for me. So much greatness in what it is and what it wants to be wrapped up with some major missed opportunities and targets. I want very much to love this album, or even like it, but alas I'm not sure I can even appreciate it all that much. No doubt it was not recorded for me (at least I hope not!), and can respect there having been a different target. I just am not entirely certain who that target audience is.
I realize this review is only going to make sense to a couple hundred people in the a cappella community, but I guess that's who it's written for. If you're checking casa.org daily and understand what I'm saying above then I'm speaking to you and your ilk. If half of what I'm saying makes no sense or the context is confusing, then disregard. Consider this akin to a restaurant review specifically for chefs, and I don't want to ruin your enjoyment of the chicken if you can't immediately tell the difference between the texture of the sous-vide carrots and the sauteed mirin-glazed gai lan alongside it. You'll likely enjoy the chicken just fine, thank you very much, wondering what the heck that guy was complaining about.
Ultimately, it's all about the music. Will you like the music? I don't really know, honestly. Guess you have to pick up a copy and listen for yourself... and then post your own review on casa.org. I'd personally love to know what other people think of this historic disc...
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