Ben Folds Five
The Sound of the Life of the Mind
The first Ben Folds Five album in 13 years arrives at a fortuitous juncture. With "nu pop" outfits like Fun. and Foster the People claiming the avant-pop mantle for folks who probably were still watching "Sesame Street" when Ben Folds Five released "The Unauthorized Biography of Reinhold Messner" in 1999, Folds might be known solely as "that judge-dude on that game show" (NBC's "The Sing-Off"). Unknown to them, perhaps, is the depth of this much-missed band's influence on modern alternative pop, or rather, on the best of the best of modern pop. "The Sound of the Life of the Mind" should change that.
Folds, a composer with equal facility for winning melody, dense harmony and bitingly sardonic lyric writing, has done much highly creative work since the band disintegrated - perhaps most notably the impossible to dislike "Rockin' the Suburbs" album, though the whole ball of wax is worth owning. That said, his songs always hit hardest when he was joined by bassist Robert Sledge and drummer Darren Jessee, their raw, frantic blend of fuzz-bass and propulsive tub-thumping providing an edge to Folds' impeccable pop confections.
That primal force is in evidence right out of the gate here, as "Erase Me" comes strutting from the speakers like a cross between "Something/Anything?"-era Todd Rundgren and an underproduced outtake from sessions for Queen's "News of the World." The tune grinds along with snarky attitude, until giving way to a classic Folds piano-led chord progression, and then exploding into a fuzz-bass-led chorus, Folds begging a former lover to "put (him) in the ground and mow the daisies." The lyric is clever and funny, as is Folds' wont, but the heartbreak beneath that veneer sounds unquestionably real. As album openers go, we couldn't have reasonably hoped for a better one than this from these guys.
Happily, this opening salvo is no fluke. As it turns out, there is no fat, no sense of the band having phoned it in, and no dearth of inspiration throughout "Life of the Mind."
Pure piano-pop heralds the title tune, layered vocal harmonies a la Jellyfish's "Spilt Milk" adorning the chorus tag, drummer Jessee doing his best Keith Moon beneath the rather volcanic chorus. "On Being Frank" wears Burt Bacharach's heart on its sleeve, and benefits greatly from a string arrangement "for viola, twin violins and cello" provided by the revered Paul Buckmaster, who would be a legend if he had only worked with David Bowie ("Space Oddity") and Miles Davis ("On the Corner," or at least the recording sessions that "On the Corner" was created from). That the tune is sung from the narrative stance of a former employee of Frank Sinatra left bereft of purpose after the death of his boss only makes the song simultaneously more unusual and deeply moving.
Pop this smart, adventurous, virtuosic and tuneful was rare 13 years ago, when Ben Folds Five called it a day. It is even more so today, when a record composed and performed by a mere three men is more than an anomaly. Bearing this in mind, it feels even better to have these oddball geniuses back again.
The Ben Folds Five performs Oct. 5 in Kleinhans Music Hall.
- Jeff Miers
1619 Broadway - The Brill Building Project
It's a good thing that Kurt Elling is such a great jazz singer - the best male jazz singer we have who isn't named Andy Bey or Kevin Mahogany - that there is no such thing as an Elling record that isn't worth at least three stars.
There is otherwise so much wrong with this disc that it's hard to know where to begin. The idea of a Brill Building tribute is a great one, but so much here has absolutely nothing that we associate with a "Brill Building Sound." ("Come Fly With Me" is a pure Sinatra song, unlike the Leiber and Stoller favorites he includes here.)
In addition, Elling is, far too often here, doing with these songs what Wynton Marsalis does at his worst, i.e. reconfiguring melodies completely, reharmonizing them and transforming their rhythm in toto.
Unfortunately, when you're dealing with songs like "You Send Me," "On Broadway" and "Come Fly With Me," you're violating a rule that Miles Davis, for one, understood in his deepest self when he made "Sketches of Spain": you turn into a cornball bebopper, rather than a great jazz figure genuinely adding something new and intrinsically interesting with every recomposition (as, for instance, Betty Carter always used to do when singing and Jackie Terrasson when playing). If you're taking radical freedoms, they need to be as interesting as the original songs. If they're simply melodic and harmonic calisthenics, they're empty.
And there's no question that there's some of that here, no matter how musically virtuosic a singer Elling is. On top of that, Bacharach and David's "A House Is Not a Home" isn't really a "Brill Building Song" as much as a Hollywood song. (The glorious joke there is that despite the domestic ultra-romanticism of the late Hal David's lyrics, the movie starred Shelly Winters as Polly Adler, perhaps the most famous brothel madam of American history.) And what, on earth, is "I Only Have Eyes for You" if not a Harry Warren song that just happened to be turned by the Flamingos into the greatest of all doo-wop masterpieces?
With all of that, Elling is just too good not to do rather wonderful things here - a rollicking version of Leiber and Stoller's hilarious Coasters mini-drama "Shopping for Clothes" with bassist Christian McBride supplying the voice of the clothing salesman telling Elling that his prized herringbone is "a suit you will never own" (to which Elling yelps in the fadeout "you wouldn't treat Pizzarelli like this").
If they're going to notch up a miss, jazz singers should always do so as creatively as this.
Toots Thielmans European Quartet
3 and ½ stars
Yes, you say, Toots Thielmans is one of the most beloved musicians in the history of jazz (and has been from the minute people discovered that was his harmonica the world heard on "Moon River" and the theme from "Midnight Cowboy"). And yes, on top of all that, he's a sublime player as well, one of the great expressive melodists in jazz history.
But, you might say, how good can a new quartet disc be when the lead musician is 90?
Listen to this, recorded live in 2011. He is, at 90, not quite the supremely gifted linear virtuoso that he was in his prime, but he remains one of the great jazz musicians - still, the greatest jazz harmonica player you'll ever hear, despite the increasing younger competition.
The Art of Renee Fleming
I've tried, but I just do not care for Renee Fleming's crossover efforts. Leonard Cohen's "Hallelujah" does not lack for interpreters and I just do not think a rich opera singer's voice is right for it. Even "You'll Never Walk Alone" sounds heavy. The good news is that "The Art of Renee Fleming" does sum up what Miss Fleming, born down the 90 in Rochester, is about. The 18 tracks come from a variety of her CDs ranging from 1997 to 2010. Her signature tunes - the Moon Song from "Rusalka"; "Ebben? "Ne andro lontana" from "La Wally"; "O Mio Babbino Caro"; Handel's "Largo" and both the Gounod and Schubert Ave Marias - are all what you would expect. In other words, they are lovely, and give an accurate portrait of one of the most celebrated singers of our era. I like the inclusion of Mariettas Lied from Korngold's "Die tote Stadt." I wish a few more off-the-beaten track gems could have made it onto the disc, to widen the horizons of newbies.
- Mary Kunz Goldman