Ben Folds: So There

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Ben Folds
So There
(New West)
Rating: 3 out of 5 stars

“I’ve stopped caring what you think about me/ I gave up,” laments Ben Folds on “Capable of Anything,” the lead track on his most daring album yet. But for those who felt they had to be on Folds’ bus of snarky, pop/prog geek rock or off it, he now offers another alternative; classical.

For the opening eight songs, the Nashville resident and studio owner employs NYC chamber sextet yMusic to accompany another batch of Folds’ by now standard darkly humorous, arch examinations of life through his eternally boyish voice and alternately artsy/plain spoken piano based melodies. Those 30 minutes show the always-game-for-something-new pianist expanding his sound, if not necessarily his approach, with the addition of cello, viola, violin, flute/woodwinds, trumpet and clarinet. Occasional percussion is added but as usual, guitar is absent from the soundscape.

If you’re already a fan, this fresh presentation of Folds’ style that incorporates elements of 10cc, McCartney and Randy Newman slides down naturally even with the new orchestration. Alternately humorous and cloying, Folds still sounds like the musical version of “Attack of the Nerds,” poking fun at his own image while getting under the skin of those he feels are less worthy. Some of it like the self-deprecating first single “Phone in a Pool” with its pizzicato strings meshes frothy and dark concepts with impressive results.

Still, since a little of his satire goes a long way, a half hour is the right amount of time to spend with it even if the two minutes of the annoying “F10-D-A” where he creates a song by calling out musical keys could have been cut.

The disc’s final 21 minutes is dedicated to three movements of his audacious “Concerto for Piano and Orchestra,” performed with the Nashville Symphony. The instrumental piece borrows liberally from Gershwin and Copeland and often feels like the orchestrated soundtrack to a Spielberg film. No matter your opinion of Folds, give him credit for the sheer talent it takes to pull this off without embarrassing himself, which he does.

How many times you’ll return to it is questionable, especially for power pop fans, but it’s a logical extension from the chamber accompaniment of the album’s opening songs and shows Folds to be even more gifted than many of his followers thought. Not everything he touches turns to gold, yet the sense that his next project could is enough to give him a pass on his more aggravating attributes. It’s refreshing to know that he doesn’t care what anyone thinks of him … as long as he doesn’t give up.